By CAITLIN KNOX
On Friday Oct. 19 there wasn’t an empty seat in the theatre thanks to the successful premiere of the play “The 39 Steps.”
“It’s a mash-up of “Clue” meets James Bond meets Monty Python,” director Ed Smith tries to explain. The lead character is Englishman Richard Hannay, played by Ethan Smith, who leads a boring life until he is mistakenly accused of a crime. He works to clear his name, save his country and solve the mystery of “The 39 Steps.” Along the way, he meets three women, all played by Meredith Cave, and over a hundred more characters—collectively played by Jennifer Jordan and Shay McCleavy.
Characters range from underwear salesmen to matronly women, with variations of English, Cockney and Scottish accents. Jordan and McCleavy are switching to a different character constantly, which is a challenge for any actor. There was a train scene where the two play five characters in the same scene at the same time. It sounds confusing, but the actors pull it off very well; becoming a cop, porter, passenger, newspaper boy and a few other characters in between.
Besides the ever-changing costumes and roles, the accents are a challenge in themselves. “It’s hard to do a scene when someone is using a different accent than you,” admits Meredith. “It’s hard to not switch over to their accent.” Ethan’s role was challenging as well. Richard Hannay was the only character that remained the same, yet he had to remember the hundreds of characters that he was interacting with. He pulled it off almost as well as his ravishing pencil mustache.
Accents aren’t the only thing being crossed in this play—there is a great deal of gender-bending as well. Jennifer plays several manly characters and Shay plays numerous female roles, like the matronly Mrs. Higgins. “I’ve never worn a dress on stage, but if it gets a laugh, then I’m all for it,” Shay says. His red braids and voluptuous figure brought tears of laughter to the audience. Shay’s elderly, deep-voiced husband, played by Jennifer, got many laughs as well.
Meredith admitted that it is “one of the hardest shows [she has] ever done,” and even the director agreed with her. “I tell my actors, ‘If you think this is really hard, then you’re not imagining it.’” “The 39 Steps” is a physically and mentally demanding show, with high energy scenes like train chases, plane crashes and the lead characters being chased through the Scottish Highlands- while handcuffed together.
I was fascinated by the set, which kept revolving to portray a different setting. The lead character Hannay travels across the country, running from the police through the Scottish highlands, passing through farmlands, a kitchen, a mansion, a hotel room (complete with a fireplace!) and many other settings throughout his journey.
“I just wish we could show what goes on behind the scenes,” said Grant Harned, who was one of the six people on the “run crew.” They were responsible for turning the set and transforming each side of it into a different room or landscape. They also operated the lights, assisted with lightning-fast costume changes and disposed of dead bodies. They could only be seen a few times, acting as policemen, frightened maids and windows (…you just have to see it).
If you didn’t see “The 39 Steps” last weekend, then you missed out on a great show. But the director warned that just because you have seen it once does not mean you have seen it all. “With comedy like this, it will just keep evolving,” said Dr. Smith. “We have been adding on to and changing scenes since opening night.” The cast agreed, saying that the play the audience saw Friday will be much different from this coming weekend’s show.
The play will run for one more weekend this Friday through Saturday, Oct. 26-28 at 8 p.m. in the Ruth Pierce Wilson Lab Theatre. Adult tickets are $7 and students are $5. Tickets are on sale now in the bookstore, and you can also purchase tickets at the door.
I recommend seeing “The 39 Steps” to any stressed college student who needs a study break and a good laugh.
“The 39 Steps” is a play based John Buchan’s novel and Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 classic film which features the protagonist Richard Hannay, accompanied by various female characters, as well as two clowns who play approximately 150 other characters.