Of one thing David Smith-English is certain — “The 39 Steps” is “like nothing else I’ve ever done, for its swiftness, its complexity and its style.”

by: PHOTO BY SAM LEVI - All eyes are on Jayson Shanafelt, left, as Richard Hannay. Also pictured are Jayne Stevens, James Sharinghousen and Travis Nodurft.    Smith-English, the artistic director of Clackamas Repertory Theatre, is the director of the play, opening on Sept. 19, in the Niemeyer Center at Clackamas Community College.

Smith-English said “The 39 Steps” was adapted by Patrick Barlow from John Buchan’s novel and Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film of the same name.

“This play version was written in 1997, and since then has been performed all over the globe. It is amazing how popular it is. The movie was a thriller and a mystery, but the play is a flat-out farce,” he said.

Because the script is open-ended, the author encourages theater groups to brainstorm ideas and use them, Smith-English said, noting that this play is the most collaborative piece he’s ever done.

“Everyone is bringing ideas to the table, and it is so much fun. When somebody comes up with an idea, then boom, we stick it in,” he said, noting that there are references to classic Hitchcock movies like “Rear Window” and “North by Northwest.”

The plot revolves around one character, Richard Hannay, who is unexpectedly thrust into a deadly game of espionage. In the course of the play, Hannay encounters nearly 150 other characters, all played by one woman and two other men.

There are “lightning-fast costume changes” and only a few set pieces, like trunks and chairs, which must do double duty as trains and tunnels.

Orrie Weeks and Annie Rimmer will create rear projections to help the audience adapt to set changes, “giving us a sense of place,” Smith-English said.

He added, “It is going to be a fast-paced romp, but with a certain sophistication about it.”

One man, three women

Hannay is “a man who is going through a rough patch in his life. He goes to a show to snap out of it, and a series of events occur that will change his life, for better or worse,” said Jayson Shanafelt, who plays the role.

He refused to reveal the significance of the title of the play, noting that “the whole show is about what the 39 steps are.”

His favorite scene in the piece is when he has a fight with Pamela Edwards, played by Jayne Stevens.

“Hannay has been accused of murder, and I am trying to convince her I am telling the truth. She finally comes around,” Shanafelt said.

In addition to Pamela, Stevens plays Annabella Schmidt, a German spy, and Margaret, a Scottish farmer’s wife. All three are love interests for Hannay.

The most challenging part for Stevens has been “making the three women different from each other.” She worked with a dialect coach to differentiate the three separate accents for her characters.

What will audiences like best about “The 39 Steps”?

“The fluidity of the characters and how they change. The audience will get to see the mechanics of theater as the actors perform their parts. That will be fun to watch, and you only see that in live theater,” Stevens said.

Two clowns

Remaining characters in “The 39 Steps,” and there are dozens of them, will be played by Travis Nodurft, as Clown 1, and James Sharinghousen, as Clown 2.

Nodurft went to clown school, joined the circus and traveled for a year with Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey. This training will allow him to bring in some classical clown bits to capitalize on the humor in the play.

“When I watch the rehearsal process, I am looking for places to use some of these bits. The play is loaded with opportunities for small, funny little moments,” he said.

It has been a challenge to make every character different, and the physicality of the zany antics that he and Sharinghousen get up to has been fun, but takes a lot of work, Nodurft said.

Audiences will love the “wild ride” of “The 39 Steps,” he said, adding, “They will not see another show like this one, with some clown bits and some seriousness.”

Usually an actor gets to focus on one character, but when you have to play dozens, you have to figure out one aspect of that character and magnify it, Sharinghousen said.

He modeled one of his characters, Mrs. Higgins, after Julia Child, noting that it helps to pull from well-known personalities.

A challenge for him has been to “keep it fresh and entertaining. It is how I make somebody feel that is the real treat for me.”

Watch your step

What: Clackamas Repertory Theatre presents “The 39 Steps,” directed by David Smith-English

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays; and 2:30 p.m. Sundays, Sept. 19 through Oct. 6

Where: Niemeyer Center, Clackamas Community College, 19600 S. Molalla Ave., in Oregon City

Tickets: Tickets may be purchased at or by calling 503-594-6047.

Details: Pre-show “Hitchcock Talk” lectures with Ernie Casciato take place an hour before performances every Saturday and two Sundays, Sept. 29 and Oct. 6.

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