Roswell Community Little Theatre brings whirlwind of production to stage
By Christina Stock
The community has two weekends, Jan. 31 to Feb. 2 and Feb. 7 to 9, to see the parody “The 39 Steps” at the Roswell Community Little Theatre, 1717 S. Union Ave. Performances are on Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and on Sundays at 2 p.m.
The play is based on the 1935 movie by Alfred Hitchcock and directed by Althea Hartwell.
Hitchcock’s classic adventure movie itself is based on a 1915 book by the popular Scottish author John Buchan, and almost didn’t make it to screen. Buchan was one of the favorite authors of Hitchcock when he was a teenager in Great Britain. Originally, he wanted to adapt a different book, but he didn’t have a high enough budget to put its various locations in Europe and the Middle East to stage, so he turned to “39 Steps.” In 1935, Hitchcock already had 15 years experience of filmmaking under his belt; looking at the book, he knew he had to overhaul the story completely. Saying this, Hitchcock himself was known for a good sense of humor, and he might have enjoyed the theater parody of his movie.
The original play was by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon, however, Patrick Barlow rewrote the four-actor play in 2005, and since it hit the stage of the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, England, it quickly became a favorite comedy on stages around the world, including Broadway where it has been performed since 2008.
The playbook describes the story: “A man with a boring life meets a woman with a thick accent who says she’s a spy. When he takes her home, she is murdered. Soon, a mysterious organization called ‘The 39 Steps’ is hot on the man’s trail in a nationwide manhunt that climaxes in a death-defying finale. A riotous blend of virtuoso performances and wildly inventive stagecraft.”
The story is so fast-paced, the audience will have to hold onto their hats watching the four RCLT actors stepping in the shoes of more than 100 characters. These brave and talented actors are Stephanie Cholak, Steven Cholak, Charles Lathrop and Jaron Morris.
Asked how Hartwell found the play, she said, “Whenever I search, I go online and the title caught my eye, that’s kind of how I find my plays, and I read the description; I read the excerpts and I thought this sounds great, so I ordered a copy. It was fun, it’s a great script.
“I’ve actually had it on my shelf for a couple of years. This is one that I wanted to do, but it was getting up the courage to do it,” Hartwell said. “These actors are running around like crazy people, the whole entire show. It’s a really funny play. And the staging, the way I wanted to do it, I was just nervous about it.”
Hartwell did her first play backstage RCLT at age 12. Years of acting followed and, as it is common practice for actors interested in directing a play, she became assistant director before directing plays herself. “That’s been some years,” Hartwell said and laughed. “I’ve done maybe seven or so.”
Asked what the biggest challenge is, Hartwell said, “There is a lot of lighting, a lot of special lighting that is going into this play. We’ve got colored lights, we’ve got fog machines, we’ve got lights plugged in backstage. There are a lot of moving parts, so the stage crew is also very busy. There are three stage crew, four, counting lights and sound.”
The new stage lights — put in a year ago — and sound are in the competent hands of Lynetta Zuber who is also Hartwell’s assistant director for “39 Steps.”
“All of the special effects are her ‘baby.’ I am really excited for that, because it is not something we’ve done a whole lot on our stage,” Hartwell said. “There will be some strobing. There are some gunshots. It is a murder/spy mystery. We have bad guys and guns going off.”
Each of the four actors will use accessories and use their talent in imitating accents to switch between the different characters.
The man — Richard Hannay in the play — who stumbles over the secret organization is Morris. This is his sixth performance. “He’s a bachelor, he’s led an interesting life, but when the play starts, he’s in a bit of a slump. The events of this play bring him into an exciting time in his life,” he said and laughed.
“I play only one role — I got the easy part, honestly,” Morris said. “The biggest challenge is memorizing all the lines again. There are quite a bit, but most of my lines are pretty easy. They are mostly reacting to the things the other characters are doing. I’m on a rollercoaster of events. I just get to react to everything that goes on around me. It’s definitely one of the most interesting and active plays I’ve been in and a lot of audience indirection. I wouldn’t miss this one because it’s one of the biggest and most ambitious journeys I’ve been on in a play.”
Asked what drew Morris to perform at RCLT, he said, “It gives me something to do. It gives me a cool social circle, everyone around me is just so nice and welcoming. They are all great people.”
Morris has been driving from his home in Artesia ever since the rehearsals started in November, being fully committed to the theater.
Stephanie Cholak plays all female characters. “I have three roles and I’m always his (Hannay/Morris) love interest,” she said. “It’s exciting. I get to play a German spy and a Scottish milkmaid, and an English, independent forward-thinking young woman. One of the characters will end up in the happily ever after, getting her man.”
Over New Year, Cholak had an unusual encounter, which came in handy for one of her roles. “I was at New York Times Square for New Year’s Eve, and I took my playbook with me to study the lines, and this woman, a couple of people away from me, said, ‘Oh, that’s a good book.’ And I said thanks. And she said, ‘Why are you reading it?’ and I said, ‘It’s a play. I try to learn my lines.’ She said, ‘It’s a play?’ I said, ‘It was a Hitchcock movie, and then turned to a play. It’s a spoof and all these funny things happen.’ And she said, ‘I had to read that in school. It was on my high school reading list.’ She’s from Scotland and she gave me tips. It was so fun. She was a podiatrist from Scotland.”
Cholak said that she has no problem with the German accent. After all, she had played the German mother in RCLT’s production of the musical “Willy Wonka.” There are other challenges that she is facing. “Keeping the accents separate with the characters, that’s been kind of tricky; making sure that I don’t slip into another one accidentally. I don’t know why I mix up Scottish and German, but I do,” Cholak said.
According to Hartwell and Cholak, the play is appropriate for the entire family. “It’s witty and it’s good clean fun,” Cholak said.
For more information, visit roswelltheatre.com or call 575-622-1982.