With more than 140 characters to show us in its travels across 1930s Europe, you can safely say that the pace of Actor's Theatre's The 39 Steps will be absolutely frantic.
"I feel like a prize fighter!" says Maret Seitz of the grind artistic director Chip Decker is putting her through. "Chip put on the audition notice that Olympian fitness is required for this show, and he wasn't kidding."
Seitz plays three women in this moody, misty comedy-thriller based on the classic 1935 film by Alfred Hitchcock. Dave Blamy, who starred in a marathon run of Embraceable Me at the Stage Door Theater earlier this year, will be our slightly flappable hero, Richard Hannay.
The rest of the roles are played by just two other actors — a prime reason why The 39 Steps ran a phenomenal 771 performances on Broadway before closing in January, by far the longest running comedy in recent years. Decker saw the Broadway production after it was imported from London, where 39 Steps became a runaway hit in 2006 (it's still running there).
It's a slightly different, more mainstream comedy than the edgy fare that Actor's Theatre has built its reputation on over the past 21 years.
"There's no F-bombs being dropped or penises being flounced about," Decker admits. "But it's exciting in that it's a very stylized piece, something we don't normally do. A perfect fit, I think, to kick off our season."
The company pounced on production rights — but not impulsively. From a budgetary standpoint, 39 Steps is more like the Orient Express than a boxcar. To do it right, Decker brought Jill Bloede aboard as a dialect coach so that the various British, Scottish and German accents would help the actors differentiate the cavalcade of characters instead of assaulting us with a linguistic blur. Jamie Varnadore climbed aboard as costumer, tackling the special challenges of outfitting the parade with simple garb that creates quick, distinctive impressions and stands up to the stress of quick changes.
Atmosphere also bloats the budget.
"It's got to have that misty sort of '30s British-Casablanca feel," Decker insists. "When you go outside, you should feel the vapor just dripping off you. Creating effects like that — low fog that sticks to the bottom of the stage and gives you that eerie, Scottish moors feeling — it's all very expensive. I'm expecting about 50 pounds of dry ice per night for this production, which is a lot. You just can't afford to go to Harris Teeter and buy it at their price."
Rory Dunn and Greg McGrath do most of the heavy lifting as Clown 1 and 2, fleshing out the overwhelming bulk of the dramatis personae; at a rehearsal a couple of weeks ago, I saw that was literally true. Decker and his two Clowns took the better part of an hour choreographing how they would comedically move a car — four chairs, a wooden lectern, and a dinky steering wheel — from center stage to the wings.
Everybody in the cast pitches in with the stagehand chores — and a hefty chunk of the sound effects. "It's almost like blocking and creating two shows," Decker points out.
McGrath hasn't been onstage locally in four years, but he's an old hand at this sort of zany mayhem, having starred with Decker in a slew of Reduced Shakespeare travesties in the past. Dunn makes his Actor's Theatre debut, last figuring prominently in the local theater firmament in '07 when he starred as the palindromic Stanley Yelnats in the Children's Theatre production of Holes.
Seitz is a Pittsburgh native who matriculated into the local scene after scintillating performances in Barefoot in the Park and Tartuffe up in Davidson. Decker cites Seitz as emblematic of Davidson College's strong theater program. He saw something special this past spring when she auditioned for Five Course Love.
"Maret came in and just wowed us. She's the type of person who will just throw herself into a role with abandon. She can sing, and she can act, and she can dance, and she's got the comedy — she's the full package."
Anyone who saw the five dishes Seitz served up in Five Course Love will be eager to see the three extra servings she'll be offering when The 39 Steps runs at 650 E. Stonewall Street from Sept. 10-Oct. 2.
Seitz loves the ensemble premise. "It's a blast," she says. "I mean, I have to roll up my sleeves just as much as everyone else to keep it moving. It's so much fun, and it's so great to be a part of a really great cast and people who love what they do and people who love comedy."
At the height of the spy thriller, with all of Western Civilization hanging in the balance, Charlotte audiences must brace themselves for four, five, or six lightning-fast costume changes in the space of 30 seconds. Might a little of the intentional sloppiness I saw on Broadway creep in when the cast ventures beyond the realm of what's humanly possible?
"That's a secret I can't divulge for fear of the revenge of Alfred Hitchcock!" Decker gasps. Then he channels the sepulchral inscrutability of the Master of Suspense himself.
"Wink wink, nod nod. Say no more, say no more."
MORE Performing Arts
• Christopher Warren-Green launches into his first season as Charlotte Symphony maestro by leading the first three concerts in the 2010-11 Classics Series. The Britisher will definitely hold a homefield advantage as he conducts an All-Elgar program (Sept. 24-25) to open the slate. But look down the road and you'll find that the luscious Alison Balsom will be playing Hummel's Trumpet Concert on a program that also includes Beethoven's Seventh (Nov. 5-6). And when was the last time you saw Symphony's music director at the podium for one of the orchestra's ever-popular LolliPops concerts? Warren-Green affirms his unprecedented community commitment, wielding the baton at the Halloween edition (Oct. 30), Chills and Thrills (www.charlottesymphony.org).
• North Carolina Dance Theatre has a Halloween treat of its own as it begins a yearlong celebration of its 40th anniversary. Mark Godden's full-length Dracula (opening Oct. 8) comes laden with vampires, ghoulish erotica and excerpts of three Mahler symphonies. If that's a wee bit wicked for balletomanes, this year's Innovative Works (Nov. 11) counterpoises the Count with a show of conscience. The showcase of new and contemporary works goes green with titles that include Tree Hugger and Kinetic Energy (www.ncdance.org).
• Now that On Q Productions has gotten our attention, roaming from the Levine to the old Afro-Am in past seasons before setting up residence at Spirit Square, they are ready to lay their first full-blown musical upon us. Ain't Misbehavin' (Sept. 22) leads off their season of satire, sure to rock the McGlohon. If that coaxes you into a funky groove, look out for the smooth doo-wop loveliness of Dreamgirls (Nov. 9), the fall highlight of the Broadway Lights Series at the PAC (www.blumenthalcenter.org).
• The Dark and Middle Ages come in all three flavors this fall. Children's Theatre sounds the musical note, beginning their 63rd season with Disney's Aladdin (Sept. 24). Collaborative Arts takes us to a French monastery, where famine, plague, and an intercession by the Pope are part of the comedy in Incorruptible (Nov. 4). CPCC Theatre takes a dramatic tack as Eleanor of Aquitaine confronts Henry II (Nov. 5) in The Lion in Winter (www.ctcharlotte.org).
• Together with N.C. Dance, Queen City Theatre Company (www.queencitytheatre.com) shares the honor of beginning our month-long celebration of horror and evil, scaring us with the specter of Reefer Madness (Oct. 8). Choreographer Mark Diamond shamelessly piggybacks on Drac's charisma, dressing up N.C. Dance's first Matinee Magic offering for the kiddies in Trick 'r Treat. Carolina Actors Studio Theatre (www.nccast.com), always a lusty Halloween celebrant, chimes in creepily with The Elephant Man (Oct. 28). Former CL Actor of the Year Hank West is not an animal!