Called to don multiple selves
Murder, mayhem and espionage: Put those together and you have "The 39 Steps," Patrick Barlow's highly theatrical stage adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock's classic 1935 film and the 1915 John Buchan novel upon which it was based.
It can be a rollicking affair for audiences. It's certainly a tour de force for three actors and one actress who, together with the imaginations of their audiences, turn an essentially bare stage into everything from a London music hall to the English moors, an estate in the Scottish highlands, a farmhouse also in the Highlands, a train rattling through the English countryside, and a snug room at a modest Scottish inn, just to name a few locales.
The play requires quick changes of costume and character for three of the four cast members. But that's nothing new for Shakespeare & Company which is mounting "The 39 Steps" in the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre, where the production officially opens Saturday evening after a series previews that began last Saturday.
This is, after all, the company that has produced "The Mystery of Irma Vep," "The Real Inspector Hound," and "The Hound of the Baskervilles."
"Our Bare Bard school tours also involve small casts, many characters and quick changes," said Jonathan Croy, who is directing Jason Asprey, Elizabeth Aspenlieder, Josh Aaron McCabe and David Joseph in "The 39 Steps."
Asprey plays Richard Hannay, a bored Englishman of modest means who has returned to London after a long absence in Canada. His boredom is shattered, however, when his attendance at a London music hall unwittingly, and willingly, thrusts him into the center of a demonish plot by an underground network of Nazi spies operating in England before the outbreak of war.
Aspenlieder plays three roles -- Annabella, a foreigner whose encounter with Hannay at the theater and her subsequent assassination in his apartment, sets Hannay, and the plot, in motion; Margaret, the wife of a crusty Scottish farmer; and Pamela, an attractive love interest who becomes attached, in more ways than one, to Hannay.
As Clowns 1 and 2, McCabe and Joseph play, between them, 23 characters, male and female, who become involved with Hannay in varying degrees and in various ways.
"I find these plays much harder to do," Asprey said during a pre-rehearsal interview two weeks ago in the Bernstein lobby, where he was joined by Croy and by his cast mates.
"This is exhausting," which seems just as it should be for an actor who is playing a man on the run from the police and German spies.
"These characters in the movie are a bit over the top," Asprey said. "[Hannay] is falling down the rabbit hole. I grow as a character, while the others remain over the top."
That sense of exaggeration is due in part, Aspenlieder says, to the fact that the story is being told from Hannay's point of view as he looks back on the events. "It reflects how he remembers these events," Aspenlieder said. "We see all this through his memory."
"With all these quick changes, everything needs to be right," she added. "Jona than knows when it's too much, when to pull back. He lets us play, but he never lets us forget the needs of the character."
"This is more about quantity," said McCabe, who plays 12 characters. "In other plays we've done in this genre, my [multiple] characters have been part of a journey. Here, I'm seeing someone else's journey. It's like looking at snapshots."
"The fact that the playwright refers to us as clowns says a great deal," said Joseph, who plays 11 characters. "You're working as hard as you can. (You're) fully in that world trying to do your job."
Hannay's journey is formidable.
"He's this bored, spoiled Englishman who's come back from Canada," Asprey said. "By the time this is all over, he finds he can be in a relationship, find true love. He learns that being idle isn't enough.
"He goes from being something of a shallow man to someone kind and generous and loving. He opens up to the world."
The play was a big sensation in London and again in New York. In this region, it's been seen at Hartford (Conn.) Stage in the spring of 2011 and in late June/early July of this year at The Theater Barn in New Lebanon, N.Y.
Neither Croy nor any of his actors have seen the play, which, they all agree, is to their good.
"We're finding whatever we're finding from (Barlow's) script," Croy said.
Croy and his designers -- Mary Readinger, costumes; Patrick Brennan, sets; Stephen Ball, lighting; and Mike Pfeiffer, sound ("Sounds are so important in this play," Croy said) -- began working on "The 39 Steps" in June.
Then, Croy said, "these guys (the actors) came in and gave us a whole new range of ideas.
"The design team have been so responsive. This whole process has been exhilarating."
Now, everyone agrees, it's time for audiences, which they've had since the first previews last weekend.
"These previews are so important," Asprey said.
"We are just waiting for the audience," McCabe said, "waiting to see how it plays, how it rides. It all comes down to trust."
To reach Jeffrey Borak:
or (413) 496-6212.
On Twitter: @BE_Theater
What: "The 39 Steps." Adapted for the stage by Patrick Barlow
Who: Shakespeare & Company
When: Tonight through Nov. 4 (press opening Saturday 7:30 p.m.). Eves.: Fri., Sat. 7:30; Thursday Oct. 18 and Nov. 1 at 7:30. Mats.: Sat., Sun. 2
Where: Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre, 70 Kemble St., Lenox
How: (413) 637-3353;
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