Smile Politely

A step for every season

Premiering Thursday, July 21 at the Station Theater in downtown Urbana is Patrick Barlow’s The 39 Steps. I had the opportunity to speak to director Mathew Green about the upcoming performances. Here’s what he had to say.

Smile Politely: Can you give us a brief synopsis of this play? 

Mathew Green: It’s a classic Hitchcock “Wrong Man” story, but played for laughs. Richard Hannay meets a mysterious woman, learns of a secret plot to overthrow his government, is accused of murder, and must run for his life while trying to prove his innocence.

SP: Given that the play has only four actors who are expected to play roughly 100 characters, did you find the audition process trying? That is, was it difficult finding actors who held the ability to assume the roles of the play’s many characters? 

MG: Actually, I found several actors who had the skill to play multiple characters. Then it became a matter of matching the actors to each other and determining who was the best fit. I have a group of actors I trust implicitly. They’re great actors, they’re extremely hard workers, and they’re funny as hell.

SP: Given that the play demands so much of its actors, is the audience to focus more on plot or performances? 

MG: I think the beauty of this production is that the plot is fairly familiar, but it’s still engaging. And that allows the audience to sit back and enjoy the work being done by the actors. I think it would be hard for the audience not to focus on these actors, regardless of the plot.

SP: This play has gone through many changes during its lifetime. It began as a novel by John Buchan, then was made into a film by Alfred Hitchcock, then was finally rewritten as a farce by Patrick Barlow. Why do you believe this piece of work is so often revisited and manipulated? 

MG: It has a clockwork plot, and a well-written plot can survive a lot of different incarnations. Everyone who touches the story puts a new spin on it. Hitchcock spun Buchan, Barlow spun Hitchcock, and every director of this play spins it again. This is our spin.

SP: The play, in many ways, pokes fun at other works by Alfred Hitchcock including Psycho, and North By Northwest. By directing this play, are you, in any way, responding to any personal connection you may feel for Hitchcock’s other work? 

MG: I’ve always been a Hitchcock fan, and no filmmaker is imitated as often, for good reason. He could take what would otherwise be considered an ordinary story (wrongly accused of murder, secret plot to overthrow something, etc.) and instill it with a lot of style and, often, humor. So I like to think of this play as an homage. It makes fun of Hitchcock, but it does so because his work is so well known.

Performances are Thursday, July 21 – Sunday, July 24; Wednesday, July 27 – Sunday, July 31; Wednesday, Aug 3 – Saturday, Aug 6.  All shows at 8 p.m. The Station Theatre, 223 N. Broadway in Urbana.  Wed, Thurs, Sun $10; Fri & Sat $15 ($1 discount for seniors and students).

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