Beyond the script: fine-tuning farce in ‘The 39 Steps’ at Constellation

Director Nick Olcott talks about the challenges involved in switching hats—along with costumes, accents, and gender—in a joyous spoof of the Hitchcock film, now extended through March 15.

“I’ve never laughed so hard in rehearsal,” said Nick Olcott, describing some of the antics performed by a tiny but talented cast — four actors in 48 roles — in the wickedly funny send-up of Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps that’s now midway through its run at Constellation Theatre.

Nick Olcott. Photo by Susan Ollman.
Nick Olcott. Photo by Susan Ollman.

Olcott, who is a seasoned director and connoisseur of comedy, is not alone in his laughter. (At the performance I saw, the audience erupted in howls of glee, sometimes before the actors could even open their mouths.)

Reviewing The 39 Steps for DCMTA, Bob Ashby (click here), called it “hilarious,” adding that it is full of “old situations, new complications, stunning surprises, and cunning disguises.”

Happily, this sold-out production has now been extended through March 15. The show —part parody and part loving tribute — is a combination of witty dialogue, slapstick, sight jokes, and mime, performed by a group of actors who know that comedy is serious stuff.

Drew Kopas is the suave leading man, morose over his meaningless life. Patricia Hurley is the leading lady — all three of them — who shocks him out of his torpor, first in the guise of a German spy-catcher, next as the wife of a Scottish farmer and last, as the classic innocent blonde.

All the rest of the characters are played by Gwen Grastorf and Christopher Walker. A team straight out of vaudeville, the two — billed as a “cast of dozens” — pop up and down as bailiffs and bad guys, salesmen and spies, sporting the most astonishing costumes and hats.

Gwen Grastorf, Christopher Walker, and Drew Kopas in 'The 39 Steps' at Constellation Theatre. Photo by Cameron Whitman Photography.
Gwen Grastorf, Christopher Walker, and Drew Kopas in ‘The 39 Steps’ at Constellation Theatre. Photo by Cameron Whitman Photography.

“Changing the costumes presented the biggest challenge,” Olcott told me when we settled down for drinks and a chat following a talk he gave at Footlights DC, an informal group of theater buffs who meet once a month in Friendship Heights.

“It takes more than velcro,” he explained,  especially when there are sleeves or pants to get into. When Sabrina Mandell, the costume designer, offered to provide the outfits right at the start of rehearsals, “it was a gift to us all,” he said. Mandell, a ‘visionary tornado,’ understood that the cast would need a lot of practice to get the hang of the ‘quick change’ art.

The most difficult scene, according to Olcott, was the train chase. In this sequence, all four of the actors are engaged in a whirlwind exchange of hats, dialects, costumes, and props.

“It’s just four minutes on stage, but it took three full days of rehearsal to get it right,”  the director said, pointing to the work of Mark Jaster, the movement director, and Jenny Male, the fight and intimacy director, who devised what the cast referred to as the ‘train ballet.’

The train wreck is one of several innovations that Olcott introduced. The scene, which involves eight moving chairs, is hysterical.

Originally written by Patrick Barlow, The 39 Steps was first produced in 2005 at the National Theatre of Brent — a company consisting of Barlow himself and Maria Aitken, the director — and has since been produced on Broadway and in the West End. (Brent, incidentally, is a working-class district on the outskirts of London, much like parts of Queens in New York.)

“When the show was produced in the West End, they had six months in which to rehearse,” Olcott said. “We had two weeks.” The results, which make a virtue out of financial limitations, simply add to the fun.

Some of the most interesting changes in this version relate to gender. In the London production, according to Olcott, many of the female roles were filled by men in drag.

Christopher Walker, Gwen Grastorf, Drew Kopas, and Patricia Hurley in 'The 39 Steps' at Constellation Theatre Company. Photo by Cameron Whitman Photography.
Christopher Walker, Gwen Grastorf, Drew Kopas, and Patricia Hurley in ‘The 39 Steps’ at Constellation Theatre Company. Photo by Cameron Whitman Photography.

“I prefer casting women,” he said. For example, when the play opens, the role of the music hall performer is played by a woman wearing a false mustache. “There’s a certain pathos to it, which sets the scene for what happens next. It’s easier to see the character’s vulnerability.”

Olcott is not the first to change some of the basics of the story. The original John Buchan novel, published in 1915, was virulently anti-Semitic, with the villains being a cabal of evil financiers.

Happily, Hitchcock updated The 39 Steps to 1935, in order to include the rise of Hitler. This time the plot is engineered by the Nazis, proclaiming themselves to be the Master Race. (Hitchcock and the screenwriter were both Europeans, acutely aware of the danger that lay ahead.)

The Hitchcock film combined everyone’s worst fear — of being pursued for a crime you haven’t committed — followed by the hope of redemption.

“Redemption is a theme that runs through all Hitchcock movies,” said Olcott, who studied the film-maker’s entire oeuvre as part of preparing for the director’s role. “The play has allusions to every movie he ever made. It’s a parody of his style, and of film noir, as a genre.”

At the same time, this version of The 39 Steps is pure farce.

“Farce is true to life,” Olcott explained. “Think about Noises Off, the Michael Frayn farce produced in 1982. What makes it so funny is that the characters are knocking themselves out to perform in a terrible play. It’s like life. It’s the triviality of the obsession that makes it so funny.”

Put another way, he added, quoting from a book by Brian Rix, “Farce is tragedy with its trousers down.”

A longtime actor, director, and adaptor, Olcott loves the stage. “Theater relies on imagination,” he said. “Both the actor and the audience agree to pretend. Film, on the other hand, is based on technology.” Olcott tried TV and film early in his career. “The money was nice,” he laughed, adding that he still gets residuals on parts that were subsequently cut.

His next show is The Blacksmith, a comic opera about the old West, translated from the French. It will have a one night showing at the Kennedy Center on May 11.

“All success stories are love stories,” he concluded. “Both The 39 Steps and The Blacksmith are about love. They’re both about people who go from loneliness to being connected.”

Although he’s had a successful career both on and off stage, he never actually studied theater. Growing up in Red Lodge, Montana (population 2,125), he was mostly interested in music and languages. He got his degree in German at Yale, then moved to Washington after graduation.

Shortly after his arrival, and largely on a whim, he went to an audition at the New Playwrights Theatre (now the Keegan) and landed one of the lead roles. The play was Dear Desperate — about an advice columnist — and he was cast as the villain. The show was a huge success.

“After that, I was hooked,” he said. Despite a string of rejections, he was committed to a life in the theater. And to spending it in DC, where he and his husband, Tim Westmoreland, have lived for the last 42 years. They met when both were at Yale.

“Why Washington?” I asked. Coming from New York, which locals perceive as the center of the civilized world, I’m always curious about the choice.

“DC is a great theater town,” he replied. “In New York, the stage is a stepping stone. Here, it’s an end in itself. Actors love it. And there’s a real acting community.

“Audiences in this town are very smart,” he added. “They’re interested in ideas, events and intellectual themes. They’re not addicted to glitz or shock.”

They also love to laugh, we agreed, especially when the world around them is full of characters even more ridiculous than those being parodied on stage.

Running Time: Two hours and 20 minutes, including one intermission.

The 39 Steps plays through March 15, 2020, at Constellation Theatre, located inside The Source, at 1835 14th Street NW, Washington DC. For tickets, call 202-204-7741 or go online.


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