By: Adaption by Patrick Barlow, based on novel by John Buchan and movie by Alfred Hitchcock
Produced by: TheatreWorks Silicon Valley
Directed by: Leslie Martinson
Featuring: Lance Gardner, Annie Abrams, Cassidy Brown, Ron Campbell
Running time: 120 minutes, one intermission
When: August 21-September 22, 2019
Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View
Tickets: $30-$100 (savings available). Visit https://theatreworks.org/201920-season/the-39-steps/ or call 650-463-1960.
takes on the craziness of 'The 39 Steps'
“I think he’s just one of a kind,” said Leslie Martinson about Lance Gardner, whom she is directing in “The 39 Steps” at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley. “He has an intensity, in drama or comedy, the capacity to surprise you, in any piece he is performing.”
In “Superior Donuts,” which I saw in 2010, Gardner was “excellent. (Indeed, a performance in this role that was less than excellent would have been blown off the stage by what [star Howard] Swain does.)”
In that show, Gardner played a street-smart hustler who is also a writer, but one who has spent some time on the wrong side of the criminal line. He and the aging hippie played by Swain both face dire circumstances, and end up having to save each other. It’s a brilliant play by Tracy Letts.
In “The 39 Steps” — a wild comedy — Gardner plays the droll and bored Richard Hannay, who becomes the dashing hero when the first of a few of his romantic interests is killed in his flat.
The play is a massive spoof of the films of Alfred Hitchcock, including, of course, “The 39 Steps,” but it also includes dozens of references to other Hitchcock movies, including “North By Northwest,” “Psycho” and plenty of others. It was adapted by Patrick Barlow, based on the book by John Buchan, from which the Hitchcock movie was made.
In this comedy version, “The 39 Steps” is a pure gift for the theater. It has been made as a spy thriller movie several times, including Hitchcock’s 1935 version, but Barlow’s script is so brilliantly funny on stage that it’s very hard to imagine it transferring to a screen.
For one thing, it’s written for only four performers, who among them play many dozens of characters, with costume changes happening literally on the fly, as bits of wigs, beards, coats, pants and everything else zoom across the stage in amazing choreography. On stage, greatness. On film, no one would care.
“I saw it the first time around at TheatreWorks (in 2011),” said Gardner during a phone interview. “I loved it. I feel like wacky comedy is in my wheelhouse.
“I consider myself a diverse actor, but there’s something special about comedy. It takes a different approach, especially in a precision comedy such as '39 Steps.’”
“Precision comedy,” indeed. Gardner plays one character — Hannay — but Annie Abrams has to play at least three different women, at least one of whom is murdered early on, leaving a beautiful corpse on stage that must be dealt with.
And the completely brilliant Cassidy Brown and Ron Campbell are the clowns — the quick-change geniuses who are among the funniest performers in the Bay Area or anywhere, who between them play dozens of characters.
“Working with the clowns is fantastic,” said Gardner. In rehearsals, it was “somewhere between constant play and grueling labor, just because we were always thinking about how to make something funnier. In comedy there is often a right answer. It can be subjective … but with minds like these, coming to the correct comedic answer means a lot of work, requires a lot of focus.
“But the reward for making someone like that laugh is pretty great.
“It’s a blast. A lot of hard work — comedy is not always fun before the show. Getting laughs is the point. The audience makes it fun.”
Gardner and Campbell were both in other shows when rehearsals started for “The 39 Steps.” That meant some long days for both of them.
“The most challenging part,” said Gardner, “is the stamina that it requires. It is challenging, physically and mentally. All the shifts in the show are so quick. You have to be ready to pivot at all times, but you can’t think too far ahead, because you have to be in the moment.”
Also — and audiences tend to not know this — it’s hot on stage, under all those lights, and in Gardner’s case, he spends most of the show in a full suit, an overcoat and a hat.
Born in San Jose, Gardner started as an actor while a student at the East Bay French-American School in Berkeley, in a program led by the Pickle Family Circus.
“I got excited about acting, did it all through school,” Gardner said. But, “I didn’t want to deal with the rejection [as in, auditioning for a role, but not getting it]. I didn’t think I had the constitution to deal with the rejection. I still don’t think I do.”
So, after high school, Gardner took a couple of years off from acting, but, “the only thing that I could really think to do was to get back into acting, so I auditioned for and entered the theater conservatory at Foothill College.
“It was fantastic. I met, built relationships with theater professionals based in the Bay Area but working nationally. I started working. I volunteered as a production assistant with the Bay Area Playwrights Foundation. My motto was, ‘I’ll do anything once.’ I built relationships, kept collaborating.”
One of the people he met through Foothill (which has an excellent theater program) was Martinson, who was casting director at TheatreWorks.
“Leslie came to Foothill and did an auditions seminar while I was a student there. When I first met her, she gave me feedback on my audition piece, then had me understudy a couple of shows at TheatreWorks.”
After appearing in “Superior Donuts” for TheatreWorks, Gardner was working as an EMT for Santa Clara County when Martinson called and asked if he would be interested in auditioning for “Proof,” which TheatreWorks staged in 2015.
“I have to give Leslie credit for luring me back to the theater,” Gardner said. “I decided I missed the theater environment. It’s home to me, something I was missing when working as an EMT.
“I took the time to do ‘Proof,’ then went back to working as an EMT, then back to acting fulltime. Fast forward four years or so, and Martinson reached out, said they were remounting ‘The 39 Steps.’”
Gardner is all too aware of how little acting pays, even as an Equity member. But he keeps at it, and has done some film work, and working on podcasts — a market he says is really expanding.
He lives in Palo Alto with his wife Brittany, who is a teacher in Palo Alto, and their three children, Miles, 13; Max, 6; and Penelope, 10 months.
Tickets are selling well for “The 39 Steps.” In fact, the show, which had been scheduled to close on September 15, has been extended through September 22, 2019.