The first production of the Penobscot Theatre Company’s 37th season features 150 characters crammed into a 1.5 hour play. You might think with that number of personalities onstage you’re looking at a huge show with countless actors — but in the case of “The 39 Steps,” it’s just four seasoned pros taking on all those roles. And two of them each play more than 40 characters. “The 39 Steps,” which opens in previews 7 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 8, is an exercise in controlled insanity.
Based on the classic 1939 Alfred Hitchcock film (which itself was based on a 1915 novel by John Buchan), the show is, on the surface, the story of an man unwittingly embroiled in a conspiracy and on the run from everyone. But there’s a whole lot more to this show that may very well be one of the most- produced plays in America this year.
“Basically, if you took a spy thriller and a Hitchcock movie, mixed them up, and then sprinkled Monty Python on top, you’d get ‘The 39 Steps,’” said Scott R.C. Levy, producing artistic director for PTC and one of the four actors in the premiere show of the season. “It’s got a really weird, absurd sense of humor that’s quite a departure from the original Hitchcock.”
Levy and PTC regular Dominick Varney are the two actors who each portray 40-odd characters — from important supporting roles to children and inanimate objects. Two actors on loan from New York play the remaining main roles, including lead character Richard Hannay (Paul Jason Green) and Hannay’s three love interests, Annabella, Pamela and Margaret (Julie Leedes). John Ruocco, also from New York, directs.
Though “The 39 Steps” originally was a novel, the play is based heavily on Hitchcock’s film. The show is more of a hilarious homage rather than a straight adaptation — the anxious, thrilling storyline is in place, but Hitchcock’s witty sense of humor is taken to wild, absurd extremes. There are small, funny references to other Hitchcock films, such as “Rear Window” and “North By Northwest,” and many lighting and sound elements reflect a more cinematic sensibility.
The set, designed by longtime PTC collaborators Lex Liang and Ed Hills, is surprisingly sparse. It uses only chairs, two theatrical balconies built into either side of the stage, and sumptuous red drapery. It’s a very self-aware play — when it premiered to wide acclaim in London back in 2005 and on Broadway in 2008, it was praised for both its madcap humor and its knowing nods to both theatrical and cinematic history. A Tony Award nomination for Best Play soon followed.
The PTC’s production will be the Maine premiere of the show, which still is running off-Broadway. Portland Stage’s production in southern Maine will open just a few days after the PTC show closes.
“I knew we wanted to do this show as soon as the rights became available,” said Levy. “It’s incredibly fun and so, so funny. It’s a really great way to kick off the season.”
“The 39 Steps” will have two preview performances, 7 p.m. Sept. 8 and 9. It will open with an 8 p.m. performance on Friday, Sept. 10, and will run through Sept. 26. Tickets are $20-$35; for information, visit www.penobscottheatre.org.
Penobscot Theatre also will be kicking off a new humanities series this year, which includes film screenings of movies related to the current production. The first event in the series will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 18. The original film directed by Alfred Hitchcock will be screened with a post-screening discussion about Hitchcock led by Professor Jeff Evans from the University of Maine’s English department. This event is free and open to the public.