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Rollicking good fun with ‘The 39 Steps’ at Devens’ Cannon Theatre

The first thing that hits me as I climb the carpeted stairs above the Devens Fitness Center is the smell of paint. In the open area at the top is a long, high-standing counter, and behind and alongside it are cans of paint, a hammer, electric tools, a vacuum cleaner, rolling trash cans and messily looped extension cords. Beyond is an open space backed by partially painted black walls, a ladder leaning against one. A black curtain is hung on rings across a metal frame, not quite covering a piece of furniture behind it. On two sides of the space are tiered seats, upholstered in bright blue. Overhead, large track spotlights focus in various directions, unlit for now. Nothing’s happening yet, but I feel a stir of anticipation.

This is the Cannon Theatre, a community theater that operated for 12 years in the old mill building in Littleton center and has newly relocated at 28 Andrews Parkway. It’s almost twice the size of the old space, with seating for 75. I’ve come with Harvard resident Maren Caulfield to her rehearsal of “The 39 Steps,” a production based on the Alfred Hitchcock 1935 film. It’s a week before opening night, Friday, May 13. Performances will continue through this weekend and next.

Caulfield, a veteran community theater actress, takes me backstage—though there is no stage in the usual sense of a raised acting space. We look into the green room, where the theater owner and the show’s costumer, Shawn Cannon, is helping a man into a suit coat. It clearly came off a clothing rack that stretches along one wall. A series of small dressing rooms lines the hallway on the other side. The whole area, built quickly and just finished at the end of March, is almost as big as the front space. We pass a small room, and I am startled to see a large, suited figure slumped in a chair, head lolling. “You’ll see him later,” calls Caulfield over her shoulder.

Black Box Theater

Back in the open space, Caulfield introduces me to the young woman who is the stage manager, Laurie Marcinkewicz. I ask her what one calls this kind of theater. “Black box,” she replies. “It’s literally a big black box, and it can be anything you want it to be.” In this case, since I see no elaborate sets or props, I realize those will have to be simple and improvised. (A train compartment from two benches and a beam, and a car from four plain chairs, as I will later see.) I take a seat behind her and get a look at her thick script binder with her numerous tabs, marginal notes, and sketches. I will soon realize how vital she is to the show—cueing people, reminding actors of positions or a costume accessory, furniture placement, and much more.

In comparison, Erik Kraft, director, has already done most of his very challenging work and can enjoy watching how the actors perform. In a later email Kraft writes: “I like to work our way through the material and just let everyone have fun with it. Often what ends up as part of the show comes out of just giving the cast permission to play around during rehearsals.”

There’s a young woman sitting in the front row across from me and a few men have wandered in. “How many in the cast?” I ask Marcinkewicz. “Seven,” she answers. “But there are way more characters than seven.” I am a bit confused, not having done my homework beforehand. I knew the play was based on an Alfred Hitchcock film, which in turn was loosely based on a 1915 spy thriller novel that was serialized, so every chapter ended in a cliffhanger. But the poster for the play says it’s a farce, so I am somewhat prepared for both verbal and physical comedy.

“There are 21 different characters in Act I,” she tells me. “Some of them reappear in the second act, but some don’t.” And there are new ones. I will find out that only the lead character stays himself throughout and is fairly low-key, with his arched eyebrow and bemused expressions. In contrast, the multiple minor characters are delightfully over-the-top and will provide most of the comic confusion.

Across the way I hear two of the actors talking about one of their scenes. I love the way their characters are so real to them. The man (who will turn out to be the lead) is saying, “I think he would take two steps back from her—he feels terrible about it.” The young woman asks him if he thinks his character really means what he says. They discuss this a bit more. Later, between scenes in Scotland, the same young woman is asking where the table will be for the next scene—“the one with the wee sandwiches on it”—an obvious reference to one of her character’s lines.

The play is set in 1939 London. The story begins with a classic be-careful-what-you-wish-for twist as the debonair lead character bemoans his mundane, purposeless, loveless life and ends up a purported murderer on the run and on a mission to save the country. The play proceeds through quickly changing scenes from London to Scotland, with our hero chased by bumbling police on a harrowing train ride and imposter inspectors across the moors. He himself is in pursuit of the conspirators and the secret of the 39 steps, with distractions by attractive young women.

Maren Caulfield (center) performs as a traveling salesman in “The 39 Steps.” (Courtesy photo)

I am waiting for Caulfield’s first appearance and surprised to see her and the other young woman in trousers, hats, and trench coats, sitting on a train across from the alleged murderer. They have a newspaper with his picture on the front page and a large hat box. It becomes clear they are traveling salesmen as they pull out several items of intimate apparel to entice their fellow passenger. They get up and down a few times, which requires expert timing as they shuffle themselves, the fugitive, the newspaper, and the box. Very silly and very funny.

Later Caulfield is handcuffed to the suspected murderer in the back seat of a car, with two bad guys posing as officers from Scotland Yard. The driver careens around corners, and all four lurch from side to side. In an ensuing scene, “Pamela” and the suspect are escaping over a stile and keep getting stuck on opposite sides. Caulfield has her moves down so well that it looks as though she is being yanked back and forth, but she must actually be moving with the pulls while looking as though she is resisting. I asked Caulfield later if her wrist was sore and she said no. It is this kind of physical adroitness and comic timing (something they looked for in auditions, Kraft said) that makes for much of the hilarity of the show.

Confusion abounds

Of course a lot of the humor is in the language—the puns, confusions and literal misunderstandings, the overdone accents, the melodramatic imploring and the monosyllabic uttering. The romantic advancements go like this: “Do you …” he says. “Yes?” she answers, moving closer. “What?” he says, and she echoes him. And then some interruption destroys what was a possible romantic reveal.

It’s a breathless pace, and the timing and physical movements have to be right-on. The play demands incredible energy and teamwork, and the cast was more than up to both; Kraft said all the actors have been really great to work with. Every one of them played each part to perfection. They changed in and out of roles—and clothes—one from a constable to a newscaster romanticizing the murderer on the lam with his pencil mustache, to a Scottish wife—all with appropriate costume, accent, and demeanor. I thought the two men doing most of the role changing looked quite similar, which led me to further confusion.

Cannon later wrote that it was a challenge to costume such a large number of characters with only seven actors. Accessories are extremely important as well, as they use different hats, wigs, glasses, and even mustaches to play a different character. “The play takes place in 1939, and I am a stickler for accuracy, so it was also difficult having the costume be right for the period as well,” she said. “But I love a challenge!”

The magic of theater

There’s something magical about live theater—it lets you feel as though you are part of it. At times the actors speak to the audience, asking us if we have seen the suspect pictured here in the paper or welcoming us to a West End Theater within the theater. We are right there at the end when it all becomes clear—or not—with the incredible memory of stage performer Mr. Memory.

The two hours passed quickly. At times I felt as though I had missed something—a lot of the time actually—and the ending seemed a non sequitur. It didn’t really bother me as I was swept up in the frantic forward movement of the narrative and the individual set pieces. But I confessed as much to Caulfield on our way home. She assured me the cast felt that way too. Since the script ending is so unclear, they added a scene of their own.

Kraft summed things up: “I think you have to be comfortable with feeling like everything is teetering on the edge of disaster for a very long time to direct a show like this. It will all come together at some point, and you just have to trust that it will happen before opening night!”

Go to thecannontheatre.org for performance dates and times and to purchase tickets.

 

The Cannon Theatre, 28 Andrews Parkway, Devens

In 2008 Shawn Cannon and Bret Bahe founded the Cannon Theatre in the old mill building in Littleton center. They had moved East from Los Angeles, California, where Bahe worked in Hollywood as a set builder and prop maker, and Cannon was a professional actress, singer, and director. It had been their dream to start a community theater, a place for learning and the performing of great plays. And they wanted to provide opportunities for people to enjoy the company of others, laugh, and lose themselves in the joy of artistic expression.

In the open space, they created an intimate performance area, designed and built from scratch. Over time the theater incorporated and then became a nonprofit organization, which was carefully managed so that all profits from each production were put right back into the creation of the next.

During the pandemic, the overhead became prohibitive and they were forced to close. They searched for a new space during 2021 and found one in late summer. The open space above the Devens Fitness Center on Andrews Parkway offered great potential. Cannon’s favorite theaters were always “black box” theaters and she had always wanted to start one of her own. Here was the perfect opportunity, and she and Bahe had the help of architect John Lynch in creating plans for the new theater.

They started building it out in January 2022. Even before the backstage area was constructed, they put on their first production. The theater has a greater seating capacity than the one in Littleton, but there is still a feeling of intimacy. There is not a raised stage, so the audience and the actors are close to one another and the experience is interactive. Built-in heat and air conditioning make this space more comfortable than the previous building.

Part of Cannon’s plan was that the theater be for all ages. The shows are all rated PG so that families are welcome.

The theater’s board invites everyone to participate in the community theater—as audience, actor, backstage crew, or even director.

 

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