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Gerald Carpenter: Ensemble Theatre Kicks Off New Year with ‘39 Steps’

Tony Award-winning play runs through Feb. 19 at the Alhecama Theatre

The Ensemble Theatre Company of Santa Barbara offers as its first production of the new year the hit Broadway comedy The 39 Steps, adapted from the 1915 John Buchan novel and the 1935 Alfred Hitchcock spy thriller by Patrick Barlow, who based his adaptation on the original concept by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon — shades of Charters and Caldicott! — of a two-actor version of the play.

The novelty of this Tony Award-winning is that its cast of four actors play among them 140 characters. The 39 Steps starts Thursday at the Alhecama Theatre (914 Santa Barbara St.) and runs through Feb. 19. The official opening night is Saturday.

The plot concerns one Richard Hannay (Matthew Floyd Miller), a patriotic Tory adventurer who is at a London theater when a row erupts and escalates into a shooting. Panic ensues, and Hannay escapes with a frightened spy, Annabella, who tells our hero she has unearthed a sinister plot to steal military secrets, by a cabal known as “The 39 Steps.” The following morning, Annabella is murdered and Hannay becomes a fugitive, pursued by police and enemy agents and obstructeded by clueless, well-meaning idiots.

The three lead female characters are played by Julie Granata, while Christopher Shaw and Louis Lotorto play all the rest — male and female. Jamie Torcellini will direct.

When Buchan wrote The 39 Steps, war with Germany loomed as inevitable. By the time the novel was published, in 1915, war with Germany had become a fact. When Hitchcock directed his movie of the book, in 1935, Germany had risen from the ashes and war with her loomed once more. Neither the novel nor the film names the enemy; they don’t have to.

In any case, Buchan’s characters don’t have personalities so much as they have loyalties. The good guys are loyal to Great Britain — that is, Scotland and England — while the bad guys are loyal to money and ambition, not to whatever anonymous continental power has bought their services. But if he had named them as Germans — or worse, Nazis — it would be morally repugnant to turn the story into a slapstick farce. Villainy is only funny when not attached to geography.

Inevitably, a stage play developed from a Buchan novel has to do without one of his strongest suits: his ability to describe landscapes, particularly Scottish landscapes. Most of his novels contrive to put at least some of the action in Scotland. Most of The 39 Steps, novel and movie, takes place either on the way to Scotland, in Scotland or leaving Scotland. Even though he ended his days as governor general of Canada, Buchan was devoted to his native land and was forever drawing portraits of her mountains and moors from memory.

The 39 Steps will play at 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and at 2 p.m. on Sundays (Sunday evening performances at 7 p.m. Feb. 5 and 19; Saturday matinee at 4 p.m. Feb. 11). Single tickets range from $32 to $60 (depending on performance date), with discounts available for seniors and students. Subscriptions, single tickets and group tickets are available through the Ensemble Theatre box office at 805.965.5400, or click here to order online.

— Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributor. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk or @NoozhawkNews.

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