There is nothing quite like the hilarious high brow humor of British wit. Combine that with an element of sharp, poignant physical comedy and you have Taking Steps the opening production of Constellation Theatre’s sixth season. There are misunderstood notes, noisy ghosts, and red plaid pajamas – oh my! This keenly riotous farce follows six Brits as they romp about in a three-story former brothel avoiding their spouses and the ghost, kidnapping and intruder and mistaking notes with identities in a manner that has the whole audience roaring with laughter.
Directed by Allison Arkell Stockman, this uproarious production has sharp verbal jabs mixed with wild physical comedy to create a mixed offering of laughter to the audience. Lizzie is an eccentric dancer who wants to leave her well to-do husband, Mark is her brother who has trouble keeping his runaway bride-to-be tied down. On the evening of Lizzie’s attempted departure her husband’s solicitor – or a nervous stammering replacement – shows up to settle the brothel which they currently rent from Mr. Bainbridge, who just wants to sell the supposedly haunted old junk-heap. Add in sleeping pills, mistaken notes, Kitty the runaway bride-to-be, and you’re in for a wildly hysterical ride as this play gallops like mad to a witty and brilliant conclusion.
Scenic Designer A.J. Guban takes the cake with the visually stunning layout of a three story brothel, including two staircases, on one flat stretch of stage. The intricate craftwork of such an elegant set does not go unappreciated, each room furnished more lavishly than the next until you encounter the derelict attic meant to be a lodging room for the house servant. Four entrances into this round space create a vast enormity of possibilities for hallways, bathrooms, other rooms and the illusion of the crumbling mansion-sized house. Guban adds unique tiling to create ceilings with light fixtures from above, including a tilted one with a grimy skylight in the attic. It’s a brilliant set to feast your eyes upon; a virtual playground for the actors in this farce – the best thing about it being that all the doors, except for the front door, are invisible.
Director Allison Arkell Stockman successfully achieves one of the key concepts of a physical comedy farce of mistaken identities and sneaking around in a very unusual manner in this particular production. As the set has no actual doors it makes every movement of her actors in spaces where doors should be incredibly important. There is never a moment where a scene involving a door slamming or people narrowly missing one another by ducking behind a door is missed or anything less than hilarious because of a lack of physical door. Arkell drives her performers to the highest heights of physical comedy without overstepping the line into obnoxiously annoying and creates a world filled with humorous encounters and missed encounters that are nothing short of perfection.
The actors themselves do a good deal of trading places not only physically in a running about sense, but in the way that they become other things for each other throughout the production. There is a rumor about the house being haunted by the ghost, and at some point throughout the show everyone encounters the sounds of this spirit never knowing that it’s just one of the other players moving, dancing, crying, or doing something else cacophonously somewhere else in the vast expanse of the house. Whole scenes play out in one portion of the house, silently performed with nothing but physical actions by one player, while others are elsewhere having dialogue. You truly get the impression of a house, stacked three stories high and are able to envision each of the level separately even though they are only ever seen all together at the same elevation. And watch out for the stairs – while no actual stairs exist – the actors have a way of making their own special trips up and down both flights.
Kitty (Megan Graves) appears to have the briefest involvement in this production as her character is introduced late in the show and is given very little to say, but her physical responses to everyone else’s actions is priceless. Graves has a scene spent running up and down the steps in sheer panic and the hilarity that ensues is sensational. All of her physicality builds and builds throughout the production like a soda can being shaken repeatedly and when she finally does get a vocal confrontation with Mark, she erupts with a spectacular bang.
Leslie Bainbridge (Doug Wilder) becomes the external catalyst for more comic moments upon his arrival in act I and his mistaken identity in act II. His off-color charming wit is as bizarre as the moldering manor which he’s trying to sell and he becomes quite the caricature when he arrives decked out in his biker gear. Wilder’s presence is often enough to inspire comic disaster and he becomes a crucial part of divine hilarity in act II when arriving after a particularly bizarre night.
Roland (Matthew R. Wilson) is the astute and very successful man who wants to buy the big house to impress his dancer wife. Watching Wilson’s solid character decompose before the audience’s eyes as he delves into a downward spiral of comedic depression and drunken antics is incredible. He quickly slides from upright and bristly to blubbering and physically floppy, making scenes with his brother-in-law and the solicitor an utter riot.
Mark (Dylan Myers) is the stuffy brother-in-law who has ideals and dreams and very boring voice that keeps putting people to sleep. Myers masters this stock character with a vim and vigor equal to no man save perhaps the energizer bunny. His approach to the stairs is the most entertaining as he shambles and ambles about them and his expressions range from mildly annoyed to utterly shocked, encompassing everything in between; a sensational mix of reserved and flabbergasted all rolled into one.
Elizabeth (Tia Shearer) is the batty dancer who has a flare for the dramatic all wrapped up into her diva character. While most of Shearer’s outbursts are completely physical she has a way of laying her tone thick with melodrama, prostrating her emotional frustration like a national tragedy. And her dancing is atrocious! Fitting with the character, who really can’t dance, Shearer stomps and clomps like a three-legged horse as she dances around the house causing chaos and confusion. Watch out for act II when she sends her character into defensive attacker mode – it’s like a spastic killer robot gone wild.
But by far the most brilliant performance given in this utterly ridiculous and laugh-filled production is that of Tristram Watson (Matthew McGee) He has more than a slightly nervous disposition and his stammering and stuttering are enough to drive you insane, fitting right in with the other insanities present in the show. McGee masters his uncertain wavering personality with a finesse that makes him truly incredible; the monosyllabic responses and impeccably timed awkward pauses giving the audience even more fuel for the funny fires. Watching McGee break down in the madness as the comedy implodes around him is the funniest thing to be seen this season and if for nothing else is the reason this show must be seen.
Together all six performers achieve comic brilliance creating the most outrageously entertaining production one could hope to see this fall season as they bring a riotous and most engaging life to Ayckbourn’s comedy Taking Steps.
Running Time: 2 hours and 20 minutes with one intermission.
Taking Steps plays through October 7, 2012 at Constellation Theatre Company at Source – 1835 14th Street NW, in Washington DC. For tickets, call the box office at (800) 494-TIXS, or purchase them online.