So you think the stage is less flexible than the cinema in its ability to show action?
Then you might want to buy a ticket to The 39 Steps, a Jobsite Theater production opening Jan. 11 at the Shimberg Playhouse of Straz Center for the Performing Arts.The New York version of the show, which is based on the 1935 Hitchcock thriller of the same name (loosely adapted from a novel of the same name by John Buchan), opened four years ago and won a rave review from hard-to-impress Times critic Ben Brantley, and even in film-besotted L.A., the Hollywood Reporter critic said, “As parodies go, they don’t get much better than this.”
If the Jobsite crew — Matt Lunsford, Brian Shea, Amy Elizabeth Gray and Spencer Meyers, together playing more than 150 parts; directed by Katrina Stevenson — can make this thing work, it promises to demonstrate that the theater’s ability to stimulate the imagination outstrips the stubborn realism which is film’s glory — and limitation.
“There’s a chase at one point on the exterior of a train,” says Lunsford during an interview at the Barnes and Noble café in South Tampa. “Part of the comedy comes from the fact that it can’t be done; so the fact that it is being done is, I hope, very entertaining to the audience.”
Lunsford plays lead character Richard Hannay, who goes to the theater one day in pre-World War II England, and meets “a mysterious beautiful woman who is a spy and she’s running from other spies.” They end up at Hannay’s apartment, where the woman is killed; and in her last dying moments she imparts terribly important information which Hannay must deliver to a contact in Scotland. The bad guys, this being the ’30s, are German, and the good guys are the British — who are very “stiff upper lip” but “in a very bumbling, buffoon-like way,” says Lunsford.
As Hannay makes his way to Scotland, there are several coups de théâtre, including a scene in Edinburgh Station where Shea transforms within seconds from salesman to porter to police officer while Spencer changes from salesman to paperboy to woman, and Lunsford is “just sitting there, hiding from the policemen or watching what’s going on.” Making the illusion even more impressive is the fact that there’s very little set — just some steamer trunks that are “either train seats, or a dinner table and chairs, or a sheriff’s desk at one point, or a podium for a political speech.”
In the first minutes of the play, Hannay is running from the police who think he killed the mysterious woman, but once he gets to Scotland, the Germans too become his foes. “I kind of fall in and out of the hands of both groups,” Lunsford says. There’s a love story (with another character impersonated by Gray) and so much action that Lunsford is usually pouring with sweat by the end of rehearsal.
Playing a Brit isn’t a stretch for Lunsford: he was born 34 years ago in Bath, England, son of an American father from Valrico and a British mother, and he only moved to the U.S. permanently when he was 24. He grew up in London in a “dreary suburb” called Blackwater, attended private schools (where he caught the acting bug) as a day student, and applied fruitlessly to the better English drama schools before giving up and moving to the U.S.
Once in Florida, where he has relatives, he enrolled as a student in a Stageworks acting class and got his first local theater job in a short play festival at Gorilla Theatre. With Anna Brennen’s encouragement, he auditioned for Jobsite, and was cast in The Nature of Fear and Its Effects.
Since then he’s worked mostly at Jobsite — Murder Ballads, The Pillowman, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, Quills and other plays — but has also done some work for Stageworks (The Glass Menagerie, The Shape of Things) and American Stage, where he appeared in Blithe Spirit. He coaches actors in perfecting their British accents (he helped out in freeFall’s Christmas Carol most recently) and to pay the bills waits tables and works as a carpenter. He loves acting with Jobsite because “their number one goal is to break ground in daring and entertaining art. They’re brave.”
Brave enough to make a success of The 39 Steps? If ever a play promised to tax the talents of a director and actors, this is it: a fast-moving comedy-thriller-romance demanding repeated efforts of imagination.
I can hardly wait to see whether the Jobsite troupe can make it run.
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