You’re deeply invested in what you’re watching. The actor on stage is talking to a guy who looks just like the woman who was found dead a few moments earlier. That piece of furniture looks like the guy who, just a second ago, was chasing after the guy who would end up being the hero of the show.
No, you’re not asleep or dreaming you’ll be laughing too hard for that to happen. Instead, you’re watching Maryland Ensemble Theatre’s production of “The 39 Steps,” a parody adapted by Patrick Barlow, from the novel by John Buchan. It’s probably best known by most as an Alfred Hitchcock film of the same name.
The stage show has four actors who end up playing more than 150 different roles, according to the Ensemble’s website. Well, maybe a 150 different roles might be a bit of a stretch.
“I’m not sure where the 150 number came from,” says Gené Fouché, who is directing the show for the Ensemble. “I think it might have something to do with the marching band. I’m actually using shadow puppets for that.”
Fouché says directing the actors in multiple roles hasn’t been the nightmare one might expect, but the same can’t be said for the actors themselves.
“It’s harder for them than it is for me,” Fouché says. “They’ll start the scene as one character and stop as another.
“It’s a little bit of mayhem, but it’s a manageable mayhem. Slowly, over time, they’re getting the grasp of the show.”
The only actor who gets to play just one role throughout is Matt Baughman, who plays protagonist Richard Hannay.
Hannay finds himself in a world of trouble after going to the theater to see Mr. Memory, played by Matt’s brother, Andrew.
Shots are fired and Hannay winds up with Annabella (played by Lisa Burl), who says she’s running from spies trying to kill her. Hannay agrees to let her stay at his place for the night, only to find her dead the next morning.
Hannay escapes and vows to track down the killer, uncover the mystery of the 39 Steps and try to stay alive at the same time.
Tad James rounds out the cast, literally, playing several different roles in the show.
“My character is the straight man, and everyone else gets to play the clowns,” Matt Baughman says. “The hardest part for me is refraining from that.
“It’s a great role. I’m on stage 100 percent of the time. It’s different.”
For Baughman, another interesting twist is playing opposite his brother.
“I work with my brother a lot, so we have a lot of chemistry,” Baughman says. “Call is brotherly instinct.
“Overall, it’s a lot of fun,” Baughman says. “There’s a lot of laughter throughout the rehearsals. Luckily, I have one of the easier jobs.”
Fouché says that while the original text from the Hitchcock film has been preserved, putting on the show has been great.
“The text itself is not a comedy,” Fouché says. “The challenge is making it a comedy, making it physically attractive.
“I mean, there’s a train chase, [Hannay’s] being shot at by a low-flying plane, so how do you go about doing that on a tight budget?”
Audiences will have to see the show to find out, as Fouché remains tight-lipped about all set changes.
When Hitchcock directed the movie, it was meant to be extremely serious. Because of that, Fouché says, it makes the show ripe for parody.
“It’s SO bad! It’s just a really bad movie,” Fouché says. “There are moments that just make the movie ridiculous to audiences today.”