The sound of machine guns echoes through the VST as senior Justin Bernard ducks to avoid a swooping plane.
This plane is no ordinary set piece — it is a moving picture on the video screen hanging behind the set of “The 39 Steps.” Instead of conventional prop scenery, the video provides the backdrop for the scenes of the play.
“The screen adds an entirely different depth and immersion experience for the audience,” Bernard said. “Sometimes there will be intentional timing mistakes to create hilarious situations.”
Based on Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film adaptation of the 1915 novel by John Buchan, the comedic melodrama adds cheeky humor to an espionage plotline for a fast-paced mystery adventure.
“It’s the perfect combination of funny and action-packed elements,” Assistant Director and junior McKenna Gessner said.
The play, which runs Nov. 15-16 in the Lowe Theater, brings back memories for Bill McDonald. McDonald has not directed a fall play since becoming Chair of the Fine Arts Department in 2000.
“I directed a lot of comedies, mostly outside of school,” McDonald said, “but this one has a different and fun mystery element that I like.”
Set in London, the story follows the unassuming Richard Hannay (Justin Bernard), who finds himself caught up in a sinister scheme when he meets a seductive female spy (Elena Skaribas). After being accused of murder, he flees from both police and assassins on a journey to clear his name and discover the secret of the 39 steps. Along the way, he encounters a variety of interesting persons, including the beautiful and mysterious Pamela (Meghan Chapman).
While actors still use traditional props and set pieces, the shifting background enables the cast to act out a greater variety of scenes.
“The plane appears to be chasing me for several minutes, even though I just run in place on stage the whole time,” Bernard said.
The play offers a comedic twist on Hitchcock’s classic tale of intrigue and suspense.
“The first time I read the play, I was dying of laughter,” senior Daniel Bland said. “It’s not farcical, like plays we’ve done in the past, but there’s much more subtle tongue-in-cheek humor.”
Unique characters, ranging from the slightly unconventional to the outright eccentric, add to the humorous effect.
“My lines include two paragraphs of math equations since my character has a photographic memory,” freshman Frances Hellums said. “I also become possessed, so I get to act out five different personalities.”
Many students had to learn how to maintain authentic accents.
“Most of the cast speaks in a British accent, but my character is German,” junior Elena Skaribas said. “I listened to a lot of audio recordings, and they brought in a voice coach to work with us.”
The production also features many cast members portraying more than one role.
“It’s an interesting take on the original play in which four actors played every part,” Bland said. “There’s a scene where I change characters every time I put on a different hat.”
With thrilling action scenes and hilarious allusions to other Hitchcock films, the production aims to stay true to its film roots.
“I’m excited for the show because I’ve never done anything like this before,” Bernard said. “It really looks like it’s straight out of a movie.”