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The 39 Steps

Zach French, Shelby Art, Howard Kingston and Brennan Buhl, from left, rehearse a scene from the Missoula Community Theatre production of "The 39 Steps." Cast members play dozens of characters in the farcical spy story.

Brennan Buhl compared memorizing his parts for "The 39 Steps" to learning a two-hour song.

In his case, the sequence might be switching from one character to another, if only for a few seconds, in a blur of choreographed, "controlled chaos," as director Andy Meyers called it.

Meyers, Buhl and three other cast members are presenting the farce for the next Missoula Community Theatre production.

Each cast member will play dozens of characters in the spy murder-mystery, which has a long story in which it worked its way from one medium to another. It was a decidedly non-farcical 1935 film by Alfred Hitchcock based on an earlier, also non-humorous novel by John Buchan. According to a production history in the Independent, an English newspaper, two English theater-makers named Nobby Dimon and Simon Corble began work on an adaptation as a no-budget farce that required only actors, stepladders, planks and sheets. From there, it moved from small tours and fringe festivals, a 2005 rewrite by Patrick Barlow, and over to the United States, where it was nominated for six Tony Awards.

The MCT production is overseen by Meyers, the artistic director of the Fort Peck Summer Theatre who works regularly in the Missoula theater community. Given the number of roles, he cast his actors looking for creativity more than anything else.

Zach French, a recent University of Montana theater graduate, plays Richard Hannay, an ordinary gentleman who gets roped into a spy scenario involving a mysterious group known as "The 39 Steps." French is the "consistent straight man," Meyers said, one who has to "trust that all the pieces around him are going to flow with him."

The other three actors flit between dozens of roles. Buhl, a Great Falls native who worked in the Chicago theater world, plays somewhere between 12 and 15 unique characters, although counting becomes difficult.

"Sometimes, it's like I'm the guy Howard was playing for a second," he said. Howard is Howard Kingston, the English-born actor and singer and staple of the Missoula theater world. Meyers said everyone is so familiar with Kingston as a classically trained actor that they'll be surprised to see his gravitas-filled presence in these screwball circumstances.

With so many characters in the play, Buhl has taken to referring to himself as a clown rather than a specific part.

"I immediately call myself Clown No. 2, because Howard is such an imposing, really fascinating, guy to see on stage," he said.

Shelby Art, an MCT touring actor, plays three different female characters of different nationalities. Meyers said she had a great sense of film-noir style in the auditions.

Like the original, MCT's version has "creative theatricality," Meyers said. A trunk might stand in for a chair, a door or part of a car depending on the needs of a scene.

On stage, a sound booth will house a foley artist armed with various gadgets to produce sound effects, from foil to make the sound of a crackling fire, to slide whistles and percussion instruments.

The cast has spent weeks working on the timing. Meyers said that in farce, you could spend two hours hashing out seven lines. Outside of that Buhl said he's spent hours at home as well.

Learning to "focus within chaos is a really nice thing to work on every day," he said.

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Arts & Entertainment Reporter

Entertainment editor for the Missoulian.