Produced by: Hillbarn Theatre
Featuring: Brad Satterwhite, Elspeth Noble, Russell Ward and Ross Neuenfeldt.
Directed by: Hunt Burdick
When: October 16 through November 2, 2014
Where: Hillbarn Theatre, 1285 East Hillsdale Boulevard, Foster City, California
Tickets: $23-$42. Call 650-349-6411, extension 2, or visit www.hillbarntheatre.org.
Watch Tracy Martin's video of a rehearsal of "The 39 Steps"
"It was my understanding that there would be no math."
Chevy Chase as President Gerald Ford in a Saturday Night Live skit, 1976
There seems to be a mild discrepancy about the number of characters in the over-the-top hilarious play, "The 39 Steps."
Hillbarn Theatre in Foster City, on its website, says there are "over 150 characters played by four actors." Some sources for the play, which has a complicated provenance that involves a novel, a movie and a major rewrite, at least, says there are 130 characters played by four actors. Other websites for the play say 140 characters.
Ross Neuenfeldt, who plays dozens of those characters in the Hillbarn production, doesn't know how many characters he plays. We can guess that he also doesn't know how many characters the show's other clown, Russell Ward, plays.
What we can be reasonably sure of, having seen "The 39 Steps" staged elsewhere, and being fully aware of the general excellence of Hillbarn's productions, is that the show, which runs October 16 through November 2, 2014, is likely to be a completely hilarious romp.
"I haven't actually counted," said Neuenfeldt in a phone conversation a few days ago. "Four actors, 130 characters. The director once said it seems like I am doing 54 distinct characters.
"It's easy to get your wires crossed, especially as the dialects change."
"The 39 Steps" is based on a story that began as a 1915 novel by John Buchan, then became a 1935 thriller classic directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Then it became a wonderful and hilarious play, written by Simon Corble and Nobby Simon, then rewritten by Patrick Barlow.
Richard Hannay is the hero, more or less, handsome and debonair, and the actor who plays him at Hillbarn it is Brad Satterwhite only plays him. There are three females roles played by one actor at Hillbarn it is Elspeth Noble and all the other one-hundred-odd (and, wow, do we ever mean odd) parts are played by the two clowns. At Hillbarn, Neuenfeldt and Ward.
By the way, Ward is great. We've seen him do multiple roles before, in "Spamalot!," and he was excellent.
There is a plot for "The 39 Steps," certainly, but it's just there as a kind skeletal framework on which to hang jokes, including a lot of puns about movies made by Alfred Hitchcock.
For the actors, especially Neuenfeldt and Ward, the show is probably exhausting. And exhilarating. For one thing, there's not much in the kinds of breaks that actors usually get, with scene changes and a chance to catch their breath in the wings or backstage.
"The 39 Steps" flows in a kind of frenetic, breakneck pace, with the actors doing all the onstage set changes, and in the case of the clowns, sometimes changing characters several times in a scene.
"It's pretty terrifying," said Neuenfeldt, "to sit back and look at the scope of it. You have to go moment by moment, you can't go scene to scene.
"Many scenes, you walk on, change on stage instantly during the scene 'Oh, now I've got five characters in the scene.' It's part of the charm of the show. ... the show falls apart at certain moments. It sometimes breaks down, shows the audience behind the scenes.
"It's really fun, to kind of let the audience in on the struggle, in a way."
When we spoke, Neuenfeldt and the rest of the team at Hillbarn had just had the first designer run-through, when the cast and the backstage personnel work together for the first time, figuring out how to make it all happen.
Because while it looks like the actors are doing all the work, the "backstage support has to be pretty immense," said Neuenfeldt.
"It's all very fun and delightful, but also really hard work ... the details the props, the quick change, a lot of moving pieces. You have to maintain full attention all the time, no chance to relax, it's a sprint to the finish ... I don't have time to catch my breath."
Neuenfeldt is from Fort Worth, Texas, where he fell in love with the theater at an early age. He was in "Annie Get Your Gun" at age 8, and not long after did two national tours of "A Christmas Carol," as Tiny Tim. His mother, Sherri, served as chaperone on those trips. She'll be in Foster City to see her son in "The 39 Steps."
Neuenfeldt's father, Brent, will come to California to see his son at Hillbarn in "Amadeus," in January, 2015.
"They take turns," Neuenfeldt explained. "One of them stays home with the Chihuahua."
Neuenfeldt did a lot of theater in Fort Worth for years, then escaped that famous cattle town to attend Boston University, where he picked up a bachelor of arts degree.
Then, he "Sort of stumbled into a neat opportunity, right out of college," to make a movie. "The Shady Lady" is a based-on-real-life film about a bomber crew from Australia that made the longest bombing run in history to that point during World War II. The B-24 left Darwin, Australia, flew to Borneo, dropped some bombs, fought some Japanese airplanes, then flew back to Australia, barely making it back to a salt pan in Northern Australia, where they were saved by Aborigines.
"I played a pilot," Neuenfeldt said. "It was really cool. They flew me to England."
Still, Neuenfeldt's main thing is theater, although he might hear the siren call of movies.
"I feel like I haven't had enough time in the world of film and camera work," he said. "I'm very interested in it, I just haven't had much time doing it. I grew up doing theater, and I love it."
Email John Orr at firstname.lastname@example.org