BENNINGTON >> What's a sure fire way to get regional audiences buzzing about an upcoming theater season? Pick a brilliantly silly play as the opener, cast extremely versatile actors who are longtime audience favorites, and put them in the hands of a talented director.
Stir up this brew, and success will follow, according to Oldcastle Theatre Company artistic director Eric Peterson, who stopped in to watch rehearsals of "The 39 Steps," which will open Oldcastle's 45th season overall and fifth in its new facility.
Peterson sat quietly in the upper seats of the theater as his charges did grunt work in the trenches below with director Nathan Stith, himself an Oldcastle acting alum.
"I've wanted to do this play for years," Peterson said, "It's not only a show that audiences will love, but also one that takes a certain type of actor. We have an entire cast of them to make it even better than it already is."
To call "The 39 Steps" good or funny seems an understatement. This two-time Tony and Drama Desk Award-winner offers nonstop laughs where four actors play 150 characters. It was adapted in 2005 by Patrick Barlow, based on the 1915 novel by John Buchan and the 1935 film by Alfred Hitchcock.
In it, a man with a lackluster life meets a woman with an accent who says she's a spy. When he takes her home, she is murdered. Soon a shadowy organization called "The 39 Steps" is in pursuit of the man in a nationwide hunt — leading to a tense finale.
In the play, one actor (Peter Langstaff) plays the hero, Richard Hannay. An actress (Natalie Wilder) portrays three women he romances. Two other actors (Patrick Ellison Shea, Jim Staudt) assume multiple roles: male, female, idols, scoundrels — the list seems endless.
Dorset, Vt., resident Langstaff, a regional favorite for years, said he is relishing every day as protagonist.
"Richard Hannay is a hapless London gentleman who is bored, has no friends left to pal around with, and no love in his life," Langstaff said following the day's rehearsal. "On a whim he goes to see a meaningless show on the West End, and his life is changed forever."
What ensues, Langstaff continued, is a hilarious madcap race against time that has him in one misadventure after another, all for the sake of saving England.
Wilder and Shea, who met on the Oldcastle stage years ago, romanced, and eventually married, are always happy for a sentimental homecoming to the Green Mountains from New York City, where they now live.
"I've loved '39 Steps' ever since I saw the original production in London," Wilder said. "I've been fortunate enough to be in a production [of it] in New York, and I'm looking forward to going for another ride. I'd be hard pressed to think of a show I'd rather do or people with whom I'd rather play."
The play often entails rapid costume changes and at times the actors portray several characters at once. It also offers up humorous allusions to other Hitchcock movies.
Staudt, now well known to Oldcastle audiences from both "Play Date" and the pandemonium in last season's "Black Comedy," said that playing multiple parts leads to fun for all.
"This play is a big, huge farce, and I get to show the many faces of it," Staudt said while on break from rehearsals. "It's really a well written piece with a lot of comic opportunity and leeway for the actors to be creative. I love coming to Oldcastle. The emphasis here is not about the facility or marketing. It's always about the people, and putting on a good show."
Peterson agreed that stage companies with limited resources have to emphasize the factors Staudt discussed, and that's why there's so much quality theater today outside of the large urban centers.
"Regional theater has now evolved into something very special," he said. "The best acting in this country is now taking place in regional venues such as Oldcastle. Our increased attendance even in difficult economic times is a testament to that. We aim to build on it further with this new season. We see this play, as well as all the others, as a thank you to our audiences for supporting us so well."
What: "The 39 Steps," by Patrick Barlow
When: Wednesday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Sunday at 2 p.m. and Saturday, June 4, at 2 p.m.
Where: Oldcastle Theatre Company, 331 Main St. in Bennington, Vt.
For tickets: Call 802-447-0564 or visit oldcastletheatre.org
Telly Halkias is an award-winning freelance journalist