Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Theatre Tuscaloosa presents “The 39 Steps”

Caroline Japal

When Dylan Davis was in high school, he went and saw a friend of his perform in a production of “The 39 Steps.” While he watched his friend, he said, that wasn’t the main person he was focused on. It was the actor playing Clown Two that had his attention.

The play, based on the Alfred Hitchcock film of the same name, uses only four actors. One plays Richard Hannay, the story’s protagonist as he gets caught up in the world of international spies and a mysterious plot to destroy England. Another actor plays three major female roles, and the remaining two are known as the Clowns. They play a dozen smaller roles, each shifting identities from scene to scene.

“When I saw it, [Clown Two] was the one who did the dramatic and the comedic parts,” said Davis, a junior majoring in musical theatre. “Clown Two is the one that gets to play the villain, Professor Jordan, and watching him go from making me almost pee my pants laughing to, ‘I’m sitting on the edge of my seat in suspense for what’s going to happen next’— it’s just so cool.” 

Now, Davis gets to play Clown Two in Theatre Tuscaloosa’s production of the play opening this weekend at the Bean-Brown Theatre on Shelton State’s campus. 

“This was one of the plays that made me want to do theatre, like straight theatre,” he said. “I was blown away by it. Just the way that this play handles comedy and drama all at the same time. Literally you can have a bust-out funny moment, and then Hannay’s being held at gunpoint risking his life, and it’s just amazing that this piece of theatre was taken from a fairly serious noir film and just turned into this madcap adventure.” 

Balancing twelve different characters was a bit of a challenge for Davis, he said. He sometimes found himself doing the same thing for two different characters. In the end, he said, it came down to figuring out a backstory for each character. 

“You’ll be doing the same thing and you’re like, “Damn it, I can’t do that,’” he said. “Like, you could because the audience maybe wouldn’t notice, but that’s not what you’re here for. You’re here to make 12 different characters and fully flush out all of them.”

Drew Baker, who plays the three major female roles in the play, Annabella Schmidt, Margaret and Pamela, said that for her, distinguishing between them came down to voice and body language. 

“I love the first one because she’s so German and so kind of that femme fatale, and then Margaret is just so shy,” she said. “You just go from one total extreme to the other, and then Pamala, the third one, I play in the one scene in the first act and then it’s all Pamela in the second act. She’s different from the other two in that she speaks her own mind and is a little bit sassy in some ways.” 

The only actor who doesn’t switch roles in the play is Gary Wise, who plays protagonist Richard Hannay. 

“I’m kind of like the rock of the show because I never change in terms of character, and they’re just all going crazy and whatnot, and I’m just kind of keeping things on steady track,” Wise said. 

While he doesn’t change what character he’s playing, Wise said he enjoys how his character changes as the story unfolds.

“He goes from being kind of depressed at the beginning to all this craziness in his life,” he said. “He’s accused of something and then he has to get away and then he finds out what happened and then he becomes a totally different person. He likes life again.” 

Aside from the character shifting, another thing that makes the production different, said Wise and Baker, is its approach to sets and effects.

“I mean there’s a train scene,” Wise said. “How are you going to do a train onstage? There’s an airplane scene, and it’s basically set in a theatre. We’re basically using what things might have been around in the theater. It’s not like we’ve gone out and made these fantastic props and things like that, so we’re just taking what was around.”

The scenery is minimal, according to Baker, with no large finished set, meaning sound plays an important factor in the production from telephones ringing, trains and a fake pistol shot. 

“We have all sorts of sound. There’s even romantic music underneath some of the dialogue,” she said. “When I hear that dramatic music I just kind of flow with it, it’s like, ‘Oh now we’re being romantic.’ I mean the only thing I don’t get to do is running slow-motion.” 

Theatre Tuscaloosa will have eight performances of “The 39 Steps” starting with one on Friday night at 7:30 p.m. Evening performances at the same time will also be held on Saturday, Thursday and Sept. 29. There will be 2 p.m. matinee performances on Sunday, Wednesday, Sept. 30 and Oct. 1. 

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