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Backstage at Shakespeare & Company’s comic thriller "The 39 Steps"

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Thursday, October 25, 2012
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Elizabeth Aspen Lieder, Josh Aaron McCabe and David Joseph in The 39 Steps

For the past few years, Shakespeare & Company has followed up its summer season of hefty fare, both classical and modern, with fall productions of what Jonathan Croy calls “comedic spookies.” These belong to the popular new genre of quick-change comedies—fast-paced capers in which a small cast play multiple roles at breakneck speed.

Perhaps because the runs coincide with Halloween, the shows have all been comic thrillers, parodies of mystery and suspense classics. They’ve included Irma Vep, the two-actor, cross-dressing gothic horror lampoon, Tom Stoppard’s whodunit send-up The Real Inspector Hound, the Sherlock Holmes mystery The Hound of the Baskervilles and last season’s onstage-radio version of Orson Welles’ alien invasion creepy War of the Worlds.

Croy is directing this year’s entry, The 39 Steps, a madcap spoof of the spy-thriller genre, theater and film conventions and the overwrought 1930s style. I dropped in one afternoon last month, when the show was in previews, to have a chat with the director and get a backstage peek at the quick-change mechanisms that make this clockwork adventure run.

The now-classic scenario in which an innocent bystander is caught up in a mysterious and increasingly perilous situation, introduced in John Buchan’s 1915 novel, was a favorite of Alfred Hitchcock’s. His 1935 adaptation, updated to the Second World War, was the first and most famous of several film versions. Patrick Barlow’s cheeky 2005 play, as much an homage to the Master of Suspense as a burlesque of Buchan’s book, puts the sweeping canvas of the plot into the hands of just four actors, and plays it strictly for laughs.

One actor plays the hero, Richard Hannay, a jaded young Englishman who is swept up in danger and intrigue when a beautiful lady spy dies in his arms. Suspected of the murder, he finds himself on the run from both the police and Nazi agents in a series of improbable plot twists and hair-raising chases from London to the highlands of Scotland and back. One actress plays three characters—the fatal femme fatale, a lonely Scottish farm wife, and Pamela, a smart, classy woman who’s accidentally drawn into Hannay’s risky mission. The two other actors—called Clowns in the script—take on all the other roles, male and female, some 30 in total, sometimes several in one scene. Most of these supporting characters are comic stereotypes, instant cameos that range from quirky to bizarre.

Extreme events

“My thought has always been that the play happens in Hannay’s mind,” says Jon Croy as we walk onto the stage in Shakespeare & Company’s intimate Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre. “It’s a reminiscence about these extraordinary events he’s experienced, filtered through his own subconscious. And that’s why the other characters are so extreme and so much of the humor in the play comes from his response to these extreme people.”

Like the skeleton cast, the physical production is pretty bare-bones, too. Four steamer trunks, a door frame and a window sash, both on wheels, and a few pieces of furniture sketch out all the play’s locations. The trunks stand in for any number of objects: a policeman’s desk, a hotel counter, the seats on a train, even the roofs of the cars on that train.

The quick-change sets support the play’s short, cinematic scenes and episodic structure, Croy explains, reaching for a handy Shakespearean analogy: “It’s very like Henry V in the sense that they’re both episodic adventures, and every episode teaches the hero, Henry or Hannay, something new about himself. By the end, Henry becomes the ultimate king of England, and by the end of The 39 Steps, Hannay has gone from whining about how bored he is to being ready to move on in his life.”

In both cases, too, it’s being thrown into lethal situations that get their pulses racing and mold their mettle. Says Croy, “If there was ever a guy who needed to be chased across the top of a train, it’s Richard Hannay.”

We’re joined by two actors in the show, Elizabeth Aspenlieder and David Joseph. (The other cast members are Jason Asprey, who plays Hannay, and Josh Aaron McCabe, the other multipurpose Clown.) Aspenlieder is laughing about a gag McCabe pulled at last night’s preview that made her break up on stage: “He prides himself on trying to crack me up. He did a whole dirty old man thing in the Assembly Hall scene, which he’s never done before, and he’s just cracking me up. I’m fighting it, but it’s a battle.” She’s also nursing an injury she sustained in rehearsal. “I’ve torn all the intercostal muscles on one side of my ribcage, from the train chase. At one point I jump out to hold onto a trunk, and I just hit it at the wrong angle and felt a pop. So it’s a ‘dangerous mission’ that we actors are undertaking, too. It’s very physical, but so much fun.”

That train-chase sequence is one of the show’s set pieces and a nutshell of the lightning transformations that drive the play. Fleeing the police on a northbound express, Hannay fears being recognized by a pair of traveling salesmen, takes refuge in another compartment where he evades the cops by kissing its occupant (Pamela) and then is chased across the tops of the cars before jumping off into a river.

In that scene, Joseph says, “I play four different characters within a span of like ten seconds, and Josh does too.” First there are the salesmen Hannay shares a compartment with, where he sees a “Wanted” photo of himself in the newspaper. “Then I leave to check out the buffet car,” says Joseph, detailing the choreography of the sequence, “and Josh’s character leans out the window to talk to a police officer, and I answer him as the police officer, then come back in as the salesman, and so on. I actually have a conversation with myself in that scene. I ask a question as the salesman and answer as another character.”

Costume chaos

Backstage there’s a well-ordered costume rack and two shelving units lined with dozens of props in neat labeled rows. But that’s before the show begins. During the performance things back here are, as Aspenlieder puts it, “chaotic. Piles of props and costumes, people running to make changes—you see clothes flying and wigs coming off and I’m back there taking one top off and [a dresser] is pulling another skirt on.” But she adds, “It’s a ballet, it’s very well timed. We spend as much time rehearsing the costume changes as we do the scene changes.”

Costumer Mary Readinger has built multilayered garments that make separate items of clothing into one piece—a blouse and skirt and apron stitched together and Velcroed at the back for easy on and off—along with collarless dress shirts with multiple switch-out collars that snap on for different characters: bow ties, neckties, a clerical collar. The actors are also “over-dressed,” that is, wearing one outfit on top of another so the costume change takes only one step instead of two.

The prop shelves hold everything from the incriminating newspaper to handcuffs to whiskey glasses to … well, there’s one prop I’m not allowed to mention. One of the running gags is a series of cheeky allusions to other Hitchcock films, including a visual reference to one famous scene. In the other productions I’ve seen, it was done with shadow puppetry, but here it gets a live reenactment, which I won’t give away. Croy admits that the mechanism for this effect “has been acting up lately, it’s very fragile. When it works, it’s absolutely delightful. And when it doesn’t work it’s even more delightful.”

That carefree attitude about something that in another play could spell disaster is all part of the show’s joky informality. The quick-change genre is built on a conspiracy with the audience, a shared delight in the transparent theatricality of the whole enterprise. So if something goes wrong, that just feeds the comedy because the actors are already, in effect, winking at the audience.

That’s not to say that the performance is ramshackle or extemporaneous. While there’s room for unscripted improv, fast-paced physical theater demands timing and discipline. Croy says that these shows both reflect and in some ways run counter to Shakespeare & Company’s established work practices. “You take this whole M.O. we have of collaborating, we say all performances are rehearsals, you never actually lock down a show. Well, obviously the rules are going to be a little different if it’s a comedy, because comedy depends on precision. So there are times when you just have to be executing a certain move at a certain rhythm, and nail that down,” he says, adding that that kind of precision is second nature to him and his cast, who have been working together for years. “We’re all old hands at doing this stuff. Pile our resumes together and you’ve got most of the comedies this company has done in the last 10 or 15 years. So this is a uniquely qualified foursome to be jumping into this.”•

The 39 Steps runs through Nov. 4 at Shakespeare & Company, 70 Kemble St., Lenox. (413) 637-3353, shakespeare.org.

Contact Chris Rohmann at StageStruck@crocker.com.

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