The Constellation Theatre Company has kicked off its sixth season with their production of Alan Ayckbourn’s British farce, Taking Steps, directed by Allison Arkell Stockman and now playing at Source in Washington, D.C.
“Noises Off meets The Office” — one description of this play — is not at all far off.
Enthusiasts of British comedy and farce are in for a special delight with Taking Steps, as this unusual play is set in the round and built around several layers of complex missteps, assumptions, and misunderstandings. The set is a three-level Victorian house, but we see all the rooms at once, getting a bird’s eye view of how both words and unspoken actions contribute to making sure the missteps, assumptions, and misunderstandings reach their full potential for disaster!
Elizabeth (Tia Shearer), a dancer of debatable accomplishment, is having a crisis in her marriage. Tired of feeling stifled by her husband, Roland (Matthew R. Wilson), who supposedly worships the ground she walks on, Elizabeth convinces her brother Mark (Dylan Myers) to stay in the house long enough to make sure Roland will not be completely suicidal upon reading her Dear John letter. Mark is willing, but only because he hopes to secure a personal loan from his brother-in-law; and anyway, he needs an extra room for his fiancé, Kitty (Megan Graves) to stay now that she is “returning” from having similarly run away from him! Roland, meanwhile, is focused entirely on his dream of purchasing this enormous house, which he is currently leasing from Leslie (Doug Wilder) who is simply desperate to make the sale. Tristram (Matthew McGee) is a young, brand-new solicitor representing the legal side of the possible sale, but his stay in the house proves to be a much longer one than he’d planned for.
Director Stockman is right when she thoughtfully points out in her notes that all the characters, despite the farcical nature of the play, have depths of insecurity and one common flaw: an unwillingness to communicate honestly and directly. This chronic failure, along with the multi-level, dilapidated house and its disreputable uses throughout the years, including rumors of being haunted by a murdered prostitute, create a glorious symphony of madness as the characters rush around, trying to protect their own delicate interests.
Enthusiasts of British comedy and farce are in for a special delight.
McGee’s portrayal of Tristram, the young, by-the-book solicitor (which, by the way, has a double meaning across the water) who can barely get a full sentence out without mangling his words for nervousness, makes this show for me. From the moment he appears on-stage, I could not help laughing and nearly crying; his consternation is so present and palpable, complete with twitches, ticks, absolutely uncomfortable pauses, and a milieu of facial expressions that betray a constant inner dialogue of absolute panic. I am intrigued by the thought that he may be someone completely different in his everyday life. Seemingly a side character, Tristram is at the center of much of the action, for he has a loveable sense of honor and duty that he musters in the worst of circumstances.
Also fun to watch are Wilson and Wilder, who, as Roland and Leslie respectively, do a dance of male peacocking as they maintain surface humor. Each tries to get the better of the other while making sure that Tristram represents their interests. Megan Graves’ Kitty is adorable through much of her “silent” action, but real and full-bodied in her passionate speeches when she finally has a chance to speak! Shearer and Myers set the stage for silliness, both being of high-speed and a little larger than life when the play begins before the play gradually catches up with them.
As the misunderstandings and plot devices take shape and build in hilarity, audiences will be delighted by the choreography around the remarkable set, which is as consistent and deliberate as the conversations are zany and unpredictable. Set designer A. J. Guban has created a sense that we are literal flies on the wall, as we watch the humans run around in actual circles up and down imaginary staircases and back and forth along invisible hallways.
Taking Steps is a great release, fresh and exuberant and certain to make people of all walks of life laugh heartedly. From beginning to end, it is a ballet of human nonsense that will make anyone’s family members, past spouses, or other unpleasant, necessary relationships seem tame in comparison.
Running time: Two hours and twenty minutes, with one fifteen-minute intermission.
Taking Steps is playing at Source Theater at 1835 14th Street NW, in Washington, D.C. Tickets can be purchased here. .