Murder! Mayhem! Mystery! Clowns? This exciting action-packed thriller could be none other than The 39 Steps presented at The Olney Theatre Center. Adapted by Patrick Barlow based on the movies of Alfred Hitchcock, this madcap adventure is sure to keep audiences everywhere on the edge of their seats. Imagine yourself an ordinary man who is bored out of his mind so he takes a night out at the theatre. And then he takes a strange woman home from the theatre. And then she gets murdered in his apartment and now the police are after him for murder. Along the way he gets tangled up in an international espionage and then manages to tangle himself into the most dangerous thing on the planet— love. The show is a roaring good time with four actors taking to the stage in over 150 zany characters.
The costumes become a key element in this show. With two of the four actors on stage jumping through characters a mile a minute Costume Designer Pei Lee creates a veritable collection of outfits ranging all across the Scottish Highlands, and presents three uniquely stylish outfits for our female actor. There is a stunning black dress with imperial shoulder tips and a bright golden emblem emblazoned on the front for the Russian spy Annabella, and a huge red checkered plaid housedress for the innkeeper’s wife. Lee’s costumes are not only fun to look at but they’re easily accessible making costume changes on stage in mere seconds possible and effective.
The stage design is incredibly unique, setting the humorous tone for the evening. Scenic Designer Cristina Todesco covers the walls framing the stage with dozens and dozens of chairs and lampshades, with the occasional hat thrown akimbo into the mix. This bizarre wall covering mimics the many hats and characters that appear on stage throughout the show. The stage itself has opening abscesses and track lining to more easily move props, curtains, and ladders on and off the stage. And Todesco adds a layer of humor to the show with various scenic pieces that descend from the ceiling and rise just as quickly up into the lighting for comic effect.
Director Clay Hopper masters the challenge of the many unique characters using only four actors on the stage, often creating the appearance of more characters on stage than is physically able. Hopper has imported to the actors the necessity of perfection in this quick character shifts making them clean and effective; a dazzling illusion that entertains the audience. There is one scene in particular in the Scottish inn where the two clowns, posing as the dirty cop, the innkeeper’s wife and Willie the innkeeper manage to do a complete flip, each playing the other as they spin circles around each other and manage to spin the dirty cop out the door without missing a beat. This scene is a fantastic example of the believability of this production – convincing the audience that there are four different people on stage when there are only two actors. Hopper also brings an intimacy to the show by incorporating the use of the audience space, moving the actors through the house during moments of frantic chaos. This choice really brings the audience into the crazy world of Richard Hannay and all of his plights.
The performances are sensational. The weight of the show is divided between the two clowns (Jason Lott and Evan Casey) the man Richard Hannay (Jeffries Thaiss) and the woman of many faces (Susan Lynskey.) Each actor brings a vivacious life to the character, and makes severe distinctions between characters to keep the audience from confusion. Their interactions on stage with one another are perfectly executed, the comic timing is impeccable and the scenes unfold in a dynamic explosion of thrilling excitement, dangerous nonsense, and extravagant tomfoolery.
Jason Lott and Evan Casey wear many hats, literally and figuratively and they become the jack of all trades adapting most of these stock characters to the stage. They master a series of varying accents, genders, and personalities, each expressed with their own signature quirk to create quality differences between these characters. Lott and Casey interact superbly together, playing off one another from beginning to end. When they first take the stage their physical mime-play is already pulling the audience into stitches with their goofy glances shared back and forth as they attempt to start the show. When they are together on the train as two traveling gentlemen they speak as one with a Statler and Waldorf style of comic delivery, completing each other’s sentences and speaking over one another to add a little more humor to the scene. There is a particular moment on the train where this duo tackles six characters in a series of a few brief moments, rapidly switching between them with a thunderous speed of hat flipping and accent changing. It’s one of the highlights of the show.
Casey’s best character shines in the British professor turned vile villain; he adapts this stock mannerism of the educated man with refined gestures and long thoughtful pauses in his words and quick as lightning flashes into a nefarious evildoer ready for world domination, complete with maniacal laughter. He carries a stiff gait when wandering the stage as innkeeper Willie and makes a distinct separation between his sleazy hired goon character and his corrupt police officer, shifting his accent and physicality just enough to convince the audience that they are two different people.
Lott is the master of facial expressions. He almost appears to be channeling comic actor Don Knotts at times, especially when adapts Knotts’s familiar voice during the scene in the plane, using a chair as his machine gun. His wide eyes and vast range of emotions make his silent scenes wildly entertaining. There are two full minutes of sound effects in the car that he responds to with just his face and a few arm jerks, creating the epitome of slapstick silent comedy. Lott’s physical presence on stage is powerful, whether he’s the haughty wife of the main villain, or the overbearing Scottish innkeeper’s wife. He masters the element of comedy in this show and is a phenomenal performer.
All these stories start because of a dame and this one’s no different. Susan Lynskey is a crafty female with a talent for mastering accents. As Russian Annabella she reminds you of a classic James Bond spy girl, stepping with purpose, using her deep voice with the thick accent to make everything sound somehow more meaningful. Lynskey is also the demure Margaret, the simple farm wife of a wild blooded Scotsman. As this quiet shy girl again the accent shines through, defining her by her location. But her crowning glory comes from Pamela, the reserved British girl who ends up tangling into the story by chance. Her irritated clipped tone speaks volumes of her character’s feelings towards Hannay and the physical challenge of being handcuffed to him creates another series of laughable moments.
Jeffries Thaiss is one of the more versatile actors on the stage despite only playing the character of Richard Hannay. Thaiss is a man who executes physical comedy with ease. When sliding out from under a corpse he makes a laughable fuss of trying to not disturb the body. His high-speed chase on the outside of the moving train cars is extremely entertaining. His witty placed one-liners are delivered with passion and a hammy nature, the resplendent feeling of old Vaudeville in his acting bringing a touch of class and charm to this role.
There’s a finale you have to see to believe! Olney Theatre Center’s hilarious production of The 39 Steps is s an absolute wonder to behold and so much fun! Be sure not to miss it!
The 39 Steps plays through May 20, 2012 at The Olney Theatre Center located at 2001 Olney Sandy Spring Road, in Olney, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (301) 924-3400 or purchase them online.
Watch a Behind-the-Scenes video of The 39 Steps with Director Clay Hopper.