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Posted August 25, 2011 | comments Leave a comment

Thriller takes farcical turn: Company opens new season with 'The 39 Steps'

Andy Kiser, as Richard Hannay, watches Marie Santucci take another drink as Annabella Schmidt during rehearsal of “The 39 Steps” at the Winchester Little Theatre. The show will premiere Sept. 2. Dennis Grundman/Daily

Kiser runs through the fog and mist created by Theresa Apple as Shadow #3 (left) and Rhonda Kisner (right) as Shadow #4. Clown #2, Jeff Schwartz (front of ladder) and Randy Orndorff, as Clown #1 (back ladder) steer a "plane" as Debbie Miles as Shadow #1 makes fog and mist in the back.

Jeff Schwartz as Clown #2, holds a gun threatening Kiser as Shadows #1, #3, and #4, Debbie Miles, Theresa Apple and Rhonda Kisner salute.

Randy Orndorff, playing a clown, shows a lady’s undergarment to Jeff Schwartz, another clown, on a train ride. Looking on are shadows, from left, Theresa Apple and Debbie Miles, along with Kiser and Rhonda Kisner, another shadow, on the right.

By Kim Walter -- Daily Correspondent
WINCHESTER -- Alfred Hitchcock had no idea that his 1935 film adaptation of the book "The 39 Steps" by John Buchan would again be adapted into a play.

The original British thriller met Monty Python-esque humor when the play, written by Patrick Barlow, premiered on stage in 2005.

Now, the farce is coming to life at the Winchester Little Theatre and will open the 2011-2012 season on Sept. 2.

Director Sally Anderson has worked at the WLT since 2002, but has never worked with a play quite like "The 39 Steps."

"I was originally looking for a thriller, but when I came across 'The 39 Steps,' I read it and thought 'this is exactly my cup of tea,'" she said. "This is a show that's all in the imagination."

Because the WLT stage is not like the one that the 2005 adaptation was written for, Anderson had to make a few tweaks. For instance, the original cast calls for just four members and a much larger stage crew. Anderson has put together a cast of eight, and they not only do the acting, but also are responsible for set changes and multiple roles.

"Everything will happen right in front of you," said Anderson. "It's what theater should be."

The story is set in London and Scotland in 1935, and follows Richard Hannay as he mistakenly becomes involved with spies, police, villains and women. The role of Hannay, played by Andy Kiser, is the only one whose actor just plays one part. The other seven actors in the production are required to play several other parts throughout the play, adding to the list of responsibilities.

Besides being actors and part of the stage crew, members of the cast also must keep a British accent going the whole time, even though none of them actually speak with one normally. Even when rehearsal isn't yet in session, you can hear the cast practicing their accents.

Though the play is set in 1935, and the novel it's based on was quite serious, Anderson is sure that the entire family will enjoy it. There is some slapstick humor, as well as clever puns and references to other Hitchcock films. The show also breaks the "fourth wall" and includes audience interaction.

Kiser, no stranger to the local stage or acting in general, enjoys interaction with the audience, as well the intimacy of being so close to them while performing.

"The audience gets a better sense of how the magic is made, and being able to see their reactions helps the actors. Being able to directly draw off the audience adds energy and keeps everything fresh," he said. Kiser added that the role of Richard Hannay has been a bit challenging -- not so much because of the physicality or the required accent, but because "it's so hard not to laugh. My character is the eye of a zany storm, so if I even crack a smile, it kills the magic."

While the entire cast has a variety of experience acting, two members are new to the WLT stage. Debbie Miles and Rhonda Kisner play two of the four shadows in the play. The role calls for multiple characters and lots of help with changing scenes. Miles admits that because her past stage experience was more related to singing and dancing with the audience much farther away, acting at the WLT "is more difficult," and Kisner added that she welcomes the challenge and very much enjoys the intimate setting.

Theresa Apple, also a shadow in the show, said of her role, "It's been great fun. How often do you get to be a headboard, car and sheep all in the same play? We do, and it allows us to release our inner light bulbs."

Trina Santucci plays the leading ladies, and takes on three distinctive characters over the course of the play.

"I go from being a German spy, to a young 19-year-old, and then to a young English woman. I'd say being a 19-year-old is the most challenging," she said.

The last two roles are the clowns, and help to bring even more laughter to the production.
"I was kind of type casted, because I was always the class clown in school," jokes clown one, Randy Orndorff. "We play women, cops, a paper boy, do different accents, run on and off stage ... it's a blast."

When asked about the importance of the Winchester Little Theater to the surrounding community, the entire cast agreed that there is nothing quite like it.

"It's irreplaceable," said Jeff Schwartz, who plays the other clown. "There is nothing like the live theater, and this particular venue offers a range of quality productions that you just can't find anywhere else," he added.

The theater also adds to community arts, something that is being stripped from schools when there should really be more of it, according to Miles.

Apple added that, "WLT fills a critical gap because there is a role for everyone at this theater. You can be on stage, behind the scenes, working with lights -- whatever interests you."

"The 39 Steps" at the WLT will run for less than two hours, including a 15-minute intermission. The official opening night is Sept. 2, but the first audience will come for benefit night on Aug. 30. The show will be available Sept. 2-4, 8-11, 15-17. For more information on ticket prices and the schedule for the upcoming season, go to wltonline.org or call the box office at 662-3331.

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