From plane crashes to train chases, First City Players’ upcoming production of “The 39 Steps” is full of action and intrigue — with only four actors to bring it all to life.
Described on FCP’s website as a “galloping whodunit,” the play originated as a 1915 novel by writer John Buchan. In 1935, Alfred Hitchcock turned the novel into a movie, which was again adapted for film in 2005.
“Action opens as a man mired in humdrum meets a woman with a thick accent who claims she’s a spy,” stated online FCP information. “He takes her home. She’s murdered! And soon a mysterious organization called ‘The 39 Steps’ is hot on the man’s trail.”
During a recent interview with the Daily News, FCP Executive Artistic Director Elizabeth Nelson said that the play— which she described as “very much a farce” — incorporates elements of the absurd.
“When they created the story, it was one of those groups of people who were looking for something really fun and silly,” Nelson said of the show’s origins.
She explained that “The 39 Steps” was chosen for the 2019 - 2020 FCP season because it would be a challenge.
“We choose shows kind of fitting a matrix,” Nelson said. “So, we know we’re going to do a musical every year, we know we’re going to do something that’s very family oriented every year, we’re going to do something that’s familiar, do something that has a multigenerational cast … and one thing we want to give our actors and directors is something that is really challenging. And sometimes, a challenging play means … it’s just that the complexity of the script is the challenge.”
Nelson also said that the show was selected because “it’s also just really fun to do a farce.”
To add to the challenge, the four-person cast of “The 39 Steps” must portray around 150 different characters.
Jack Finnegan will take on the role of protagonist Richard Hannay.
“(Hannay) just sort of gets caught into this story,” Nelson said about Finnegan’s role. “It’s not that he is the one who is part of this whole network of spies. He gets caught into it, which leads him on a journey. Will he or will he not be able to discover what ‘The 39 Steps’ mean?”
Rachel Jacobucci will act as three different female lead characters.
Colin Patton will act in the role of “clown one,” with Austin Hays filling the role of “clown two.”
Hays and Patton will be tasked with portraying a number of the 150 characters included in the play.“They are the ones that play a multitude of characters … there’s one scene where they play between the two of them, six characters, so three each, in three and a half minutes,” Nelson explained.
Nelson said that actors use their physical personas to help signify when a change in character is happening. She compared the production to a past FCP show of the two-person play “Greater Tuna,” in which two actors played around 80 roles.
“A big part of it really is having great costumes that can come on and off quickly,” she said, adding that Deb Patrick has designed the costumes for the production. “And then for the actors to be able to create different vocal and physical types (is important).”
Sound effects are also an important part of the production.
“The other sort of unwritten, nonhuman character — but hugely important part of the show — is sound,” Nelson said, noting that this production’s sound manager is Keith Smith. “There are 140, 150 sound cues in this show.”
The variety of sound effects are designed to accompany numerous action-packed scenes, ranging from airplane or car chases to big jumps and even a scene involving a herd of sheep, Nelson said.
“Obviously, we’re not putting airplanes on the Kayhi stage,” she said about bringing the show to the First City. “So what we’ve been doing is coming up with ways to create the illusion of it, and for them (the actors) to be able to physically create that illusion.”
Nelson said that she has enjoyed working with the actors because of their flexibility.
“The biggest thing that I’ve been loving about this cast is their willingness and their ability to play,” she said, adding that “they never say no” to trying a new idea onstage.
For Nelson, the hardest part of prepping for the action-packed show is “letting yourself let go of how we see things in reality,” because “it’s often the ridiculous that wins the day.”
Aside from the four actors, Nelson noted that a variety of community members are helping backstage.
FCP Outreach and Marketing Director Amanda Glanzer is acting as the assistant director, Clare Bennett is serving as the show’s movement coach, and Becca Doyle has taken on the job of production stage manager. Danielle Pratt is in charge of props and Spencer Hasty is responsible for the show’s lighting, while Brian Curtis, Barb Morgan and Angie Goffredi have all worked to design the sets.
“The 39 Steps” will debut a “pay what you can performance”at 7:30 p.m. on March 5 at the Ketchikan High School auditorium.
Opening night is March 6 in the Kayhi auditorium. There will be shows at the same time on March 7, 13 and 14.