The Rep’s Gerard Neugent dishes on “The 39 Steps”
Milwaukee Rep’s premiere of Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps, based on the recent hit London and Broadway stage productions, has a lot of characters. One of the Resident Acting Company’s go-to guys with character is Gerard Neugent, who in eight seasons has portayed a range of personas in such productions as A Christmas Carol, Laurel and Hardy, Almost, Maine, The Cherry Orchard, and more. We asked him what it’s like to play a lot of characters (sometimes all at once) in a sweeping espionage thriller packed with slapstick and wit.
Neugent: Working with John is a match made in heaven. This is the first opportunity we have had to work together and I can’t say enough about how great he is. So hard working and dedicated. Genuine and enthusiastic in his approach to both his work and his life.
As for the dynamic, I think we work extraordinarily well together. Lots of give and take and we both like to participate in each other’s ideas. It really has been terrific.
TCD: The Rep season is about at the halfway mark. How does this play fit in with the tone or progression of the rest of the works?
Neugent: The whole cast works well together. I have worked with Reese before and have to say that he’s as nice as they come. And Helen is incredibly talented and audiences are going to really like her.
This work is incredibly collaborative and along with our great director JR Sullivan we have the opportunity to give something unique and exciting and fun and witty to Milwaukee.
TCD: Have you ever been Hitchcockian before?
Neugent: I was a Hitchcockian when I was in Jr. High and High School. So I had seen many of the movies before this project. To be honest, Hitchcock came to me because I really loved Jimmy Stewart. But after seeing Rear Window I was hooked. I especially like the spy story genre that the 39 Steps lives in.
TCD: Are you Man 1 or Man 2, and who decided who would be who?
Neugent: I’m not sure if Man 1 and Man 2 are really applicable titles for our characters any longer — the script refers to us “clowns” – but I am Man 2. The 39 Steps was written for a proscenium stage and some adjustments had to be made to adapt or to The Rep’s thrust. One example is a sequence that is described as being done by casting shadows of a plane onto a sheet upstage center. The two clowns then read Pilots 1 & 2. This can’t be done on the thrust because of sight line problems. Instead, I am playing both Pilots 1 & 2 and the plane is in plain sight of the entire audience. It is pretty cool. But you’ll have to come see it – our director cast us in our specific roles.
TCD: Describe if you can exactly how the quick-change works, and why it’s an integral part of this play’s fun.
Neugent: A quick change us a thing of beauty once it is perfected. It allows us to do the impossible, change entire outfits in seconds. We can leave the stage as one person and immediately return as someone else in a flash. Sometimes these quick changes can occur right on stage in front of the audience (by adding it removing a hat or hats). At one point in this show, John and I play eight different people in a crowded train station thanks to some crafty hat quick changes.
The offstage variety of the quick change involves Velcro and snaps. The actor leaves the stage and is met by a dresser (or a team of dressers) telling you what to do step by step, or second by second as the case may be. The worn clothing is, by the power of Velcro or snaps, ripped off. Next the new clothing is put on by the dresser, both of you closing snaps and Velcro as you go. Many changes are helped by underdressing, wearing one set of clothes under another. Taking off is always faster than putting on. I have three costumes on at once toward the end of this show. The backstage is quite a sight I am sure as I leave a swath of costume destruction, tearing off two top costumes just in time to enter in the third.
Quick changes make this play go. Reese plays Richard Hannay throughout. Helen plays Annabella, Pamela, and Margaret (and maybe a policeman). John and I play everyone else. I play more than twenty [characters] at least. This is only possible by having great dressers and quick changes, and drinking a ton of water.
TCD: Rumor has it that occasionally you have to play an inanimate object. Like what?
Neugent: I play parts of the Scottish moor – a polite rock, a sucky bog, a flexible tree, sweet smelling heather, a gurgling burbling stream/river, and a deep puddle.