‘The 39 Steps’ Blends Comedy and Mystery

Abigail Witt (left) and John Lauri (right) play Annabella Schmidt and Richard Hannay in ‘The 39 Steps.’ Photo Courtesy / ESU Press Release / Rita Plotnicki Abigail Witt (left) and John Lauri (right) play Annabella Schmidt and Richard Hannay in ‘The 39 Steps.’ Photo Courtesy / ESU Press Release / Rita Plotnicki
Abigail Witt (left) and John Lauri (right) play Annabella Schmidt and Richard Hannay in ‘The 39 Steps.’ Photo Courtesy / ESU Press Release / Rita Plotnicki
Abigail Witt (left) and John Lauri (right) play Annabella Schmidt and Richard Hannay in ‘The 39 Steps.’
Photo Courtesy / ESU Press Release / Rita Plotnicki

By Madison Petro
Staff Writer

A fun, action-packed comedy. This central theme of ESU theatre department’s upcoming production of Patrick Barlow’s “The 39 Steps” is what drives the actors and crew to entertain nine audiences between Feb. 28 and Mar. 5.

“It’s different because it is both a murder mystery but it is also a spoof of that genre at the same time,” said Director Stephanie Daventry French, professor of theatre. “There’s all different types of comedy: there’s slapstick and there’s situational comedy and there’s language-based comedy.”

“It’s partially supposed to be taken as a joke, the entire production, because it’s based off of the fact that ‘oh, we only have four actors and we gotta throw together this play,’” said John Lauri, senior and male lead in the production. “But you have to remember there’s a story underneath all of this mayhem.”

“It’s not only a comedy that harkens back to the Hitchcock era of mystery with a funny, parody twist to it,” said Katie French, sophomore, “but I think some of the messages and themes in the play are kind of relevant to the climate of the world today.”

French, along with junior Nick Kwietniak, plays a “kuroko.”

“It’s based on a Japanese form of theater where they would have people dressed in all black onstage to create some special effects with movement, like helping someone look like their arm was falling off or something crazy like that,” said French about the “kuroko.” “It’s kind of like stage crew, but onstage as a character in each scene.”

“The ‘kuroko’ is something added to the show. It’s not in the original script, but it works really well with this show because the show is very high action,” said Kwietniak. “You kind of move the set, but then you are elements of the set and scenic design as well. For instance, if it’s snowing, I’m sprinkling snow; if it’s raining, I’m sprinkling water. But then, I’m also alive as a run crew member, too, transitioning the scenes.”

“My role is almost completely physical, there’s hardly any vocal. I had to come to every rehearsal ready to move,” said French. “There’s a lot of running around and putting your body in odd shapes and doing stuff really quickly. That’s been difficult, but I’ve been able to get more of my athleticism back and it’s been really helpful for me to be able to just be a healthier individual.”

But French and Kwietniak are not the only actors in the production who have to be physically in-shape.

“There’s a good amount of stunts,” said Stunt Coordinator Christopher Robinson, senior. “There’s definitely a lot more stunts than I originally had thought because I had originally seen the show on Broadway. So working on it has opened my eyes to a lot more things that we could do with stunts.”

“You really gotta be an Olympic athlete to do well in this show,” said Lauri, “when we’re not on stage, we’re bolting to our next spot.”

Lauri is the only actor who plays one role throughout the show, but he pointed out another difference between his role and his fellow actors’ roles.

Luis Feliciano and William Barreto, both seniors, play Clown 1 and Clown 2, respectively.

“Clown 1 and 2 are pretty much all the supporting cast of the show,” said Barreto.

“We each play multiple characters. I play 14, he plays 13,” added Feliciano. “And throughout the show we have to rapidly change from one character to the next and continually do it throughout the whole play.”

“We have to give each of these characters their own personality, their own body types, their own dialects, everything to make them as unique as possible,” said Barreto.

“We each play women,” said Feliciano. “I play two, he plays…”

“I play one,” replied Barreto with a chuckle. “It’s a large range of characters from young and old to middle aged to male and female. I’ve acted in four shows total, including this one. And this is the only one where I have to be 13 characters. And in one scene, I have to swap rapidly between four of them.”

Along with physicality, the actors also had to learn accents. Clown 1 and Clown 2 speak male Scottish, Cockney, English and German accents, as well as female accents in the show.

Abby Witt, freshman, plays three characters in the show with three different accents. Witt says the preparation for her roles involved a lot of accent training.

She speaks English, German and Scottish accents throughout the play.

As for the “kuroko,” who have mostly physical roles, collaboration is key.

“My role is devised this time,” said Kwietniak, “It’s not in the script, so me, Katie and Steph sort of came up with what the ‘kuroko’ would do together, pooling our ideas together.”

“I’m taking suggestions and ideas from wherever they come from,” said Director French. “I have a very creative group of people, both onstage and those on crew. They always come up with spontaneous, wondrous things that make us all laugh and end up in the show.”

Director French explains just why the show is centered around fun.

“For the audience, I think this will be a tremendous amount of fun. There’s a lot of nods to a lot of different movies throughout this, so they might have fun identifying where those nods come in. If they’re Hitchcock fans, they’ll certainly see some of that.

People, a lot of our students coming in, that have never really seen live theatre, they’re gonna be surrounded by the show. I think they’ll feel a part of it and involved in it. It’s in a very small theatre, so there will be a very small audience. And the action takes place all in and around them, within touching distance of the actors. And there are definitely interactions with the audience, as well.”

“I want the audience to leave the theatre very happy and laughing and having a good time,” said Lauri.

“It’s a comedy show,” said Barreto. “If people are laughing, then we did our jobs very well.”

“I want them to follow along with the story, I want them to enjoy the lives of each character,” said Feliciano.

“I hope that the audience has a really good laugh and that they feel genuinely entertained and inspired by what the theatre can do,” said Kwietniak, “that it can feel alive.”

“The 39 Steps” performance times are 7:30 p.m. Feb. 28 through March 4, and 2 p.m. on March 4 and 5.

Performances are in the Dale Snow Theatre at Fine Arts.

Admission is $12 for general; $10 for senior citizens, faculty and staff with I.D.; $7 for students with I.D.; and $5 for youth 12 and under.

This production is recommended for ages 10 and up.

Due to limited seating, purchasing tickets in advance is highly recommended.

Tickets can be purchased online at esu.edu/theatretickets.

Remaining tickets can be purchased with cash or checks at the box office one hour before performance times.

Email esuarts@esu.edu or call 570-422-3483 for more information or reservations.

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