Entertainment » Theatre

Tripping Up 'The 39 Steps' with Allison Olivia Choat

by Kilian Melloy
Tuesday Nov 14, 2017
Allison Olivia Choat
Allison Olivia Choat  

Cinephiles who are fans of Alfred Hitchcock know that the "Master of Suspense" was also a master of subtle comedy; some of it was macabre, some of it was plain silly, but it was a reliable part of all his films.

Another constant of many Hitchcock movies was the "wrong man" theme, in which an innocent guy would deb accused of heinous wrongdoings -- murder, treason, that sort of thing. In the case of the 1935 film "The 39 Steps," the main character -- a fellow called Richard Hannay, played by Robert Donat -- it's a bit of both. Hannay must flee the authorities, who suspect him of killing a female secret agent; meantime, he finds that a deeply embedded ring of spies are pulling the strings of power in order to stop him before he can interfere with their plans to smuggle a secret mathematical formula that's vital to the war effort out of the country.

Moonbox Productions -- a small theater company that specializes in putting on, and pulling off, ambitious projects, will present a comedic version of "The 39 Steps," a 90-minute epic in which four actors depict 150 characters (including a few inanimate objects) -- or so the press notes would have you believe.

Director Allison Olivia Choat has undertaken a number of memorable productions for Moonbox, and garnered critical acclaim along the way for shows like "Floyd Collins," "Of Mice and Men," and "Amadeus." Choat has also worked with Flat Earth Theatre on shows like "Terra Nova" (movement direction) and "What Once We Felt" (set designer).

EDGE caught up with Choat for a conversation about "The 39 Steps," the challenges of comedy and suspense (especially when they take place at one and the same time), and the loaves-and-fishes task of making a handful of actors seem like a cast of hundreds.


EDGE: Of all the movies that Alfred Hitchcock made, I wouldn't have thought of 'The 39 Steps' as a candidate for a comedy stage play instead of 'The Trouble with Harry' or 'Family Plot,' or even 'Saboteur.' Why is 'The 39 Steps' a good candidate for this sort of reimagining?

Allison Olivia Choat: Actually, when I think of 'The 39 Steps' and I have to contextualize it for other people who are less familiar with Hitchcock, I end up drawing frequently on 'North By Northwest,' which I think also has some comic elements. I think of that moment when Carey Grant is being interrogated and he has sunglasses on, and someone says, 'What's the matter with your eyes?' and he says, 'They're sensitive to questions!'

[Laughter]

Every time I hear that, I just burst into laughter. I think there's something about the suspense of it -- there's something about the madcap rush that characterizes suspense noir in particular. I feel like it's always teetering on the edge of comedy, anyway.

EDGE: There is a lot of comedy in Hitchcock's films. He was a director who put a lot of humor into his work, even in suspenseful passages.

Allison Olivia Choat: Yeah, I think that's one of the things that makes the suspense so suspenseful -- when things get difficult or dangerous he has that foundation of character that lets you find those people relatable. Once you start caring about them, then you worry about them; you're frightened for them. And if they weren't likeable people who made you laugh and kept you interested, I think the movies would be less successful.

EDGE: This is an adaptation by a playwright named Patrick Barlow. He went back to a four-act play that other playwrights had made out of that film, and he created this version. Is he preserving that same sense of suspense noir? Or is this more a matter of focusing on the comedy, or maybe doing an ironic take on the original material?

Allison Olivia Choat: I think that's definitely a question that arose for me as I was reading through the script. I was trying to figure out what's happening with this play in terms of tone, because it is so complex. I remember reading in Barlow's notes that he wanted to try to walk that line -- to have moments of real comedy, but also preserve some of that drama and suspense and romance; he didn't want to lose what he saw as being the heart of the play. I sort of agree with that; I think that's one of the great challenges of the script. When you get a bunch of funny people in the room -- and were lucky enough to have some really funny people in the room -- you come up with a bunch of great gags and a lot of really terrific moments. But if there isn't an underpinning of real character, and there isn't a connection to the sense of danger and the sense of adventure, then I think the script really loses something. I think it's important to try to preserve as an interpreter.

I like to joke that I put the comedy in tragedy and the tragedy in comedy... But I think that's what makes plays work: Complexity and diversity. I hope people will laugh, but I also really hope they'll be in the edge of their seats a little bit. That's one of the real challenges of staging the show sort of leanly and minimally, as it's designed to be staged. But it's also one of the most exciting parts of it, because when you do a production that is minimal, the audience gets to use their imaginations and enter the world of the show with you. They get to do some world-building of their own, and that helps. There's no way we can do on stage what Hitchcock did on film; that's impossible. So how can we create that same atmosphere? I think saying 'Imagine this with us' is a really cool alternative.


'The 39 Steps'  (Source:Courtesy Moonbox Productions)

EDGE: You're right that Barlow strips this play down and intends for it to be staged minimally. And I don't think this is a four-act play, either -- I think he pared that back, too.

Allison Olivia Choat: Oh, no, not at all! It's two acts, and just at two hours with intermission. Even in rehearsals, it flies by.

EDGE: And also, there are only four actors -- that pares things down quite a lot right there! How are four actors playing 150 roles?

[Laughter]

Allison Olivia Choat: You know, I read that [claim] myself when I was first looking at The 39 Steps, and I thought, 'Really?'

I feel like it might be a bit hyperbolic -- counting through the script, it's far fewer than 150 roles. The way that it works is that one leading man plays Richard Hannay -- that's Kevin Cirone in our production. And then one leading lady -- for us, that's Sarah Gazdowicz -- plays all three women he encounters on his journey. Those women are Annabella, a mysterious German spy; Margaret, an innocent Scottish lass; and Pamela, a hard-headed, tough English lady that he meets on the train. She ends up being his unwilling - at least, to start -- companion along the adventure.

The remaining two actors, who are Bob Mussett and Matthew Zahnzinger, play everybody else. So they're the villain, the evil Nazi professor who wants to smuggle the secret out of the country; they're the two stage performers who open the show; they're Mrs. Higgins, Richard Hannay's elderly housekeeper; they're a pair of Scottish innkeepers, they're every policeman... So there's a lot of diversity for them. We've been working out the kinks of how you make character quickly, without making caricature inadvertently -- which I think is one of the real challenges of this piece. Obviously, it would be silly of us to sit down and invent a rich tapestry of backstory for Policeman One, who has three lines, but at the same time he should be distinct form Policeman Two. We should know that it's a different person when it's appropriate for us to know that. That's one of the things that's taken a lot of our concentration so far.

EDGE: With the play having such a fast pace and technical challenges like costume changes to work out, not to mention what the actors are going through, what are the challenges as the director of this show when it comes to making sure that actors, lighting cues, sound effects, and everything else hits its mark?

Allison Olivia Choat: It is difficult, and I would say that it's very much a question of timing, and that making thing happen in the right way is really the challenge. It's not even always about speed so much as it is about rhythm. I spent a lot of time as a musician before taking on any kind of artistic leadership role as a director -- I was a performer, and often a singer, so for me it's almost a musical question.

We end up with sequences of lines that have this rapid, comic back and forth. Aside from what's being said, there's a cadence and a timing. That rhythm lets the audience know, even subconsciously, what's coming up: Here comes something funny! Or, here comes something dangerous! So a lot of what we've been doing is, we've been stomping our feet to mark the time, and repeating things over and over and over. We don't want just the lines to be part of the actor's memory; I think in every production you want that! But we want the movements, the timing, to be really ingrained.

In this production, specifically, it's almost like a dance. Every movement, every prop that's picked up, every line has to be part of a sense memory for these performers -- more so, I think, than any show I've done. We've just been running and running and running, and tweaking and tweaking and tweaking, trying to make sure that we hit that consistency, because that's really when things start to feel inspired -- ironically. You would think that comedy would be a very free-form, exploratory medium, and I think it is, the first time you run a scene. But then you have to set it.

With tragedy you think, 'Oh, I found the emotional beats, we can move on,' and then you stand wherever you end up standing. But with comedy that's completely untrue, because you find the emotional beats and then you have to be right there, downstage right, to catch the herring when he drops it. That's sort of been our process as we prepare.

EDGE: When it came to casting of these four actors, what were you mainly looking for?

Allison Olivia Choat: Versatility is an obvious first answer, I think, for most of them. For Richard Hannay we don't need an actor who plays multiple roles, but we need an actor who's really warm, who's relatable -- and who's really athletic! You have to do a lot of crazy stuff for this show, no matter how it's staged. We wanted someone who was verbally agile, as well as physically agile, who could rise to the challenge of these unique staging problems. Kevin really fit the bill there. For the other roles -- again, physical agility is very important; you need to be able to run, you need to be able to jump, you need to be able to change clothes super-fast -- without pulling your shoulder.

For the actors playing multiple roles, of course, we were looking for versatility in every aspect of performance. Being able to change the pitch and timbre of your voice; having a facility with accent work, posture work, and physical work -- all of these things come into creating all of these people, at tremendous speed. This was one of the most interesting audition and callback processes that I've been a part of. We saw such extraordinary talent, and it wasn't a matter of 'Could these people play these roles?' It was a matter of who did we want to prioritize: the person who did the most fluid rendition of fifteen different British-Isles regional accents, or the person who could do those same accents while doing a backbend?

In the end, I think, as so often is the case, it came down to chemistry: looking at all these people who are so gifted and have so many skills -- it's just a question of who has that electric energy together? Who really plays off one another really well? And that ended up being the group that we chose.

EDGE: Since this version of 'The 39 Steps' was first performed in 2005, it's won awards and it's played all over the world. What is it that audiences are responding to about it? Is it Cold War nostalgia? Is it a change to have a good laugh?

Allison Olivia Choat: Wow, 'Cold War nostalgia,' that's...

[Laughter]

It's hard to think about looking back on that time nostalgically! But I think it's the sense of adventure, actually. It's being wrapped up in this crazy madcap story, while also having the sort of comedic reassurance that everything will be all right. I think the show has this wonderfully participatory energy; the audience gets to explore, they get to have the adventure along with the actors; they get to watch the world of the show being created around them.

Let's say the actors are putting together whatever bridge they're jumping off of, and it's only three feet high. And then, as you sit in your seat, you get to say 'Oh! I see it! That's so great!' And then, 'They're gonna jump - oh no!!' They don't jump very far, but it doesn't matter, because you built that bridge with them and you're as excited for it as they are.

Being in the rehearsal room has been especially fun for me; watching and participating in that problem-solving process. I think that's actually something that distinguishes the show from a lot of productions that are running right now -- it really invites audiences to participate... and not in the way where you have to get up on stage and you have paint splashed on you, or whatever. It gives you a feeling of ownership, and an opportunity to feel very clever indeed as you work these things out. I have a lot of faith in my audiences -- they are very smart people who want to be asked to think and participate, who want to be challenged a little bit. I think the show offers a very unique challenge in that while it's very lighthearted and a lot of fun -- it's not necessarily going to sear your soul like '1984' or whatever -- if you're intelligent, it's going to make you think. It'll make you laugh and think. We've got the best of both worlds.

EDGE: You've done lots of stuff for Moonbox, and what comes to mind for me are the shows like 'Of Mice and Men,' 'Floyd Collins,' 'Company,' 'The Importance of Being Earnest' -- and you've also done a fair amount with Flat Earth Theatre as well, so what is it about those two companies? It is something about their mission that you feel syncs with you well?

Allison Olivia Choat: I think that can be true, and I think it's also the projects they select; the artistic tenor of the companies. They create artistic projects that resonate with me and draw me in. I'm fortunate enough to have a day job that I enjoy, so for me, when I take an artistic project, it's not necessarily about paying the bills, though it's nice when it can help do that. It's more about what fascinates me, and what I think resonates with my talent set.

I don't just want to be part of a production that I enjoy, and I'm exited about, but I want to be part of a production that I can contribute to uniquely. I think that one of the things that distinguishes the stories I've told with both companies -- and with Flat Earth, I'm thinking specifically of 'Terra Nova,' 'Pygmalion,' and 'What Once We Felt' -- is that they're familiar stories told in a unique way, or stories that are in themselves unique and boundary-crossing. And I think that's something that really excites me across the board.

EDGE: Something Moonbox does is partner with nonprofits to make contributions to the community in different ways. For this production, Moonbox is partnering with Y2Y Harvard Square, a student-run shelter to serve homeless young adults. Would you tell me bit about them?

Allison Olivia Choat: You're absolutely right [in that description]. I'm always excited about the missions of the nonprofits we partner with, and I am particularly excited about Y2Y, the nation's first student-run homeless shelter for young adults. I think that's really amazing. We talk a lot about 'Oh, the world is going downhill,' and 'Young people today,' and I think this is a wonderful response to that complaint about 'young people today.' Young people today are helping other young people today -- they are reaching out to people who don't have a home to call their own, helping support them and feel safe and grounded.

EDGE: You're doing something that sounds innovative -- a 'Pay What You Can Donate' night. Kind of like 'Pay What You Can,' but in this case bring something to give to the cause and get into the show.

Allison Olivia Choat: That's right! That performance is on Wednesday, November 22. Traditionally we've had a pre-Thanksgiving show at the BCA Plaza Theater where's it's been a 'Pay What You
Can' performance, where people can bring cans of non-perishable items. I came up with that can pun and I think it's hilarious. I'm not sure anybody agrees any more...

[Laughter]

...but I'm still getting a good chuckle out of it! But this performance our 'Pay What Can' will also benefit Y2Y. This means that folks can bring in canned or other non-perishable food, but they can also bring in men's and women's underwear that are unused and unopened, the can bring in new or lightly used winter gear -- so if people are going through their closet and they find, 'Oh, I never wear this scarf and it's in good shape,' or if they find coats or towels, that kind of thing, they can help stock the shelter and help make it a resource that offers the physical things that people who are homeless need. I think that's a really terrific opportunity to give back, and something that I am really excited to be a part of.


"The 39 Steps" plays Nov. 17 - Dec. 9 at The Boston Center for the Arts. For tickets and more information please go to http://www.moonboxproductions.org


Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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