‘The 39 Steps’ theater performance debut: here’s what to expect

The 39 Steps, presented by Augustana Theatre Sept. 30 to Oct. 3, is sure to be a hilarious, chaotic show. The serious spy-thriller turned spoof features farcical costume changes, a minimalistic acting box set and comically-timed sound cues.

“It’s almost like a parody,” sophomore Neil Peltier said. “It’s the thriller book, spy story book, that turned into a Hitchcock movie, and now it’s a joke. They put it on stage, but there’s only four actors, and we have to do just about everything.”

In The 39 Steps, which takes place in August 1935, Richard Hannay (senior Perry Kolvek) takes the flirtatious German spy Anabelle Schmidt (sophomore Magdalen Eberle) home with him only to find her murdered in the morning — with him as the only suspect. On the run from the police, Hannay must travel from his home in London to Scotland while trying to solve the mystery to clear his name and works through his entanglement with international spy ring “39 Steps.” Throughout, he is trapped in romantic entanglements with a Scottish countrywoman named Margaret (Eberle) and the uptight British woman Pamela (Eberle) and gets in dire situations propelled by the do-it-all acting clowns who play everything from police to hotel owners (Peltier and junior Tatiana Chance).

The John Buchanan novel became an Alfred Hitchcock movie before making its way into this stage adaptation by Patrick Barlow, which takes an entirely different approach to the story.

Eberle said the movie, which the cast all watched, takes itself too seriously to the point of being boring, as it follows the book exactly. She prefers the light-hearted theatre version.

Peltier agrees that the play is drastically different from the Hitchcock film.

“Basically, it feels like a more stripped down version of a movie just because we have even fewer resources and so we have to utilize techniques to try to create something that we really can’t,” Peltier said. 

The Augustana actors had only a month to prepare for this play and were aided by stage manager Elizabeth Dobbe, sound design by Gabe Hyatt and set and lighting design by Jacee Casarella, with co-lighting designer Dylan Buddy.

Director Dan Workman instructed them to channel creative chaos in their acting and helped the four actors master British and Scottish accents.

These accents build the characters, who one actor may be switching rapidly between onstage, to establish clarity and separation for audience understanding.

“I really enjoy [The] 39 Steps just because it’s the first time I’ve been able to work with dialects at this level,” Chance said.

The dialects aren’t the only thing keeping the illusion of completely different characters within the same actor: costuming drives character switches. 

Peltier said the two clowns, meaning actors who play many roles, switch among fedoras, top hats, trench coats, suit jackets, and many more quick costume adjustments to convey about 150 characters throughout the show. These hilariously-fast adjustments add to the comedy as one clown might even be having a conversation with themselves but as two different characters.

“It’s so much fluidity in that way,” Eberle said. “And somehow making a new character, having the audience understand that, but then also having to be someone else immediately after — that takes a lot, and it takes a lot of nuance and a lot of bold choices.”

Chance said she most enjoys playing the old crofter who limps around whacking people with his cane, while the other clown, Peltier, said he prefers the moment where he puts on his blue gown and becomes a married woman flirting with Richard Hannay.

“How much character work has already been developed, only two weeks in, is really amazing,” Chance said.

The minimalist set made of black acting blocks, old trunks, and other easily movable items makes for easy movement and fast changes.

Imagine four antique trunks in a row, with bouncing, swaying actors making the audience believe it’s a train running down the rails, some hanging out the side — or two pilots in the acting deck and two passengers on the stage floor miming a plane crash with shadow puppetry.

“It’s supposed to be kind of kooky,” Eberle said. “I think Augie has really taken that material, and we’ve stuck pretty true to what the play is intending.”

The student actors’ jobs in scenes like these is to make the audience fall for the trick that they’re more than a few actors on black-painted boxes with a steering wheel but actual people racing down the road in a real car.

“The magic of theatre is just acting it out and making it seem like you’re in a car and stuff like that,” Kolvek said.

Augustana Theatre will have the audience doubled over with laughter as they perform The 39 Steps with over-the-top acting styles and an overall goal of controlled chaos.

“It’s kind of a play for everyone,” Kolvek said. “So if you like comedy, you like laughing or if you like stress or just watching things that are suspenseful, then this is the play for you.”

The 39 Steps opened Thursday night and will have shows Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. You can purchase tickets here.

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