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39 Steps and Multiple Layers

Date: Apr 26, 2010


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Pop quiz: If you attend The 39 Steps, then how many plays will you see?

Answer: Two. Maybe three. There's a dominant story you can enjoy right away, and then just underneath, there are other plots and other worlds that call to especially attentive audience members.

No one spends more time navigating those worlds than Cameron Folmar and Jamie Jackson, who play dozens of characters in this low-tech spoof of Alfred Hitchcock's 1959 thriller about Richard Hannay, a mild-mannered Brit trying to prove he's been falsely accused of murder. While John Behlmann plays Hannay and Kate MacCluggage plays a trio of female roles, Folmar and Jackson play everyone else, from an innkeeper and his wife to a pair of bumbling lawmen to a couple of music hall performers. As they flit between roles---sometimes playing several characters in the same scene---the versatile duo tends to several layers of storytelling at once.

Hannay's adventure is the most crucial piece: If that story gets neglected, then the audience gets lost. Therefore, even when they're joking and pratfalling and frantically switching costumes, Folmar and Jackson say their performances are always focused on Patrick Barlow’s playwriting. “You’re a slave to the storytelling process, and that only works if you surrender the ego,” Jackson says.

Folmar agrees, adding, “The roles we play, one doesn’t exist without the other. They’re always symbiotic. If we were competing with each other---oh, let me get this laugh---then that would be really horrible.”

There’s symbiosis in the next level of the play, too. According to Folmar and Jackson, the cast imagines they’re playing roles within roles---that they are playing the members of a small theatre troupe that has decided to put on a production of The 39 Steps. Working with director Maria Aitken, they’ve crafted an elaborate backstory about an expensive production whose budget fell through, forcing the troupe to mount the low-budget Hitchcock parody at the last second.

In this shadow world, Folmar and Jackson’s characters are a pair of local clowns who are thrilled to tackle so many parts. No one says this explicitly to the audience, but there are moments when the main story breaks down and you can see the “local theatre troupe” peeking through.

In one scene, for instance, Folmar and Jackson switch between multiple characters by rapidly swapping hats. At one point, the wrong hat ends up on the wrong head, and for a moment, chaos rules. The actors gleefully trade hats at lightning speed, morphing from role to role until Behlmann’s character tells them to knock it off. “The story is that when they go off-track, they just get lost in enjoying the hell out of themselves,” says Folmar. “It’s a game. They could do it all night.”

Even if the audience doesn’t see that much of them, these behind-the-scenes characters are valuable because they let the cast bring more vigor and purpose to their primary roles. It’s one thing to wander on stage and play an innkeeper. It’s quite another to know that you’re a local clown who’s delighted to put on the innkeeper’s apron. That added bit of motivation invites all sorts of new gestures and voice and reactions.

And the longer they’re in the show---which only opened Off Broadway on April 15---the more the cast can bring to their performances. That’s the third layer of the story: Professionals sinking into their work.

“We’re just beginning the process,” Jackson says. “The opportunity to practice your craft and master some of the physical elements of it, it lets you start to layer in more and more and more texture so that hopefully the laughs aren’t just on the surface. They actually come from the characters. That is what the process in a long run gives you the opportunity to do. You can become a comedian who also has a soul.”

Mark Blankenship is TDF’s online content editor

Photo credit: (L to R) Jamie Jackson and John Behlmann; photo by Carol Rosegg