by Barbara Waldinger
Barrington Stage Company’s Artistic Director Julianne Boyd wanted something light to be sandwiched between the serious musicals Ragtime and Company, and settled on Taking Steps, a comedy by Sir Alan Ayckbourn, master of farce. There was one problem: the play is meant to be performed in the round, impossible on the Boyd-Quinson Mainstage. Ayckbourn himself directed the premiere in 1979 at the Stephen Joseph theatre in Scarborough, England, where he served as Artistic Director for thirty-seven years. The following year, when Michael Rudman mounted the piece at a West End theatre using a proscenium arch, Ayckbourn complained that it was not a fair representation of his work.
Having written seventy-seven plays and winning numerous awards, Ayckbourn is very specific about the way Taking Steps should be handled. Why is it so important? As in many of his works, the set determines much of the action. In House & Garden, for instance, two plays take place simultaneously on two different stages and can be seen separately. Taking Steps is likewise innovative, being set in a large, decaying Victorian mansion, formerly a brothel said to be haunted by a murdered sex worker. The house has three floors but the conceit of the play is that they are all on the same level. Ayckbourn’s stage directions dictate that although the stairs are flat, they give the impression of leading upwards. The furniture for each room occupies the same area of the stage so that the three levels “should and must overlap.” In the round, the steps would be visible to the audience looking down from tiered seats.
How do director Sam Buntrock and scenic designer Jason Sherwood overcome the proscenium arch problem? After collaborating for some four months, they arrived at an ingenious solution: they created an upper level stairway hanging from the flies, with two staircases and two doors that mirror the front and second floor bedroom doors below. This is the key or visual reference that helps the actors and the audience to understand the geography of the piece, since they are the only steps on the stage. Thanks to Buntrock’s insistence that the actors hit the ground running, rising to their feet on the first day of rehearsal rather than spending time on table work, they were able, through repeated physical movement, to figure out on which level they were playing. Even as the characters narrowly miss colliding with each other, they still have to maintain the illusion that they are on different floors. Quite a challenge for everyone involved!
One serendipitous result of rehearsing at Barrington Stage’s new Wolfson Center arises out of a pillar that impeded the actors’ rehearsal movements when entering the attic level. Buntrock cleverly decided to make its presence felt on the performance stage in the form of an imaginary beam threatening to smash into any character unaware of its position in the darkened room. Needless to say every encounter in the attic is fraught with comic danger.
As the levels coalesce, so do the various plots. The women, Elizabeth (Claire Brownell) and Kitty (Helen Cespedes), “take steps” to free themselves from their male partners: Roland (Richard Hollis), Elizabeth’s wealthy, pompous, alcoholic, doting husband and Mark (Luke Smith), Kitty’s hapless fiancé, who literally induces sleep in anyone listening to him. Meanwhile, Roland is negotiating the purchase of the haunted mansion for Elizabeth (who hates it) from its owner, Leslie Bainbridge (Matthew Greer), a motorcyclist and builder, desperate for the income, with the help of Roland’s solicitor, Tristram (Carson Elrod), who seems to have no legal sense whatsoever.
Each of the actors handle the play’s considerable physical demands with aplomb. As Elizabeth, who claims to have spent her life training to be a dancer, Brownell leaps and pirouettes across the stage becoming entangled with the motorcyclist who attempts to rouse her from sleep, as well as with the clueless solicitor in a hilarious bedroom scene. As her husband, Hollis is a master of many moods, exhibiting supreme confidence and a stiff upper lip, along with an inability to distinguish similar-sounding words from one another. At times he is dead asleep or drunk, at others he is sobbing uncontrollably. As Elizabeth’s brother, Smith faces the unenviable task of boring the characters onstage while maintaining the interest of the audience—not always successfully. As the owner of the house, Greer, in contrast to his tall stature and dark motorcycle garb, plays eager to please, often laughing and surprisingly vulnerable. And as Mark’s fiancée, Cespedes, who appears sullen and quiet when we first meet her, bursts into life when she struggles to get out—literally from a cabinet where she is stuck, and figuratively as she finds a way, despite many obstacles, to escape from the house and the bleak future that beckons.
But it is Elrod who gives the most successful comic performance of the evening. The actor’s unintelligible explanations, his facial expressions, his fear of the sounds in this supposedly haunted house, and especially the elasticity of his body place him in the class of the greatest stage clowns of the Commedia dell’ Arte (reminiscent of Bill Irwin and David Shiner). Local audiences may recall his brilliant representation of a droid last year in The Chinese Room on the Nikos Stage in Williamstown, the highlight of that production.
The costumes, designed by Jennifer Caprio, serve the performers well, and in the most surprising onstage change, enable Elrod to switch from pajamas to a suit while running down two flights of imaginary steps holding a briefcase. Lighting designer David Weiner meets the challenge of this set by employing many onstage instruments, including standing lamps, table lamps, and even a wire with a missing bulb in the attic. Sound designer Joel Abbott not only provides us with appropriate songs of the period but also the noises caused by the plumbing problems of the creaky mansion.
English farce is not always easy for an American audience, who must grasp foreign accents, dry humor, and crazy antics. It takes a bit of time for this production to find its legs but once the physical elements of Ayckbourn’s expertly crafted situations dominate the action, lovers of this genre of comedy will find it delightful.
Taking Steps runs from July 20—August 5, 2017 at Barrington Stage Company’s Boyd-Quinson Mainstage. For tickets call 413-236-8888 or online at barringtonstageco.org.
Barrington Stage Company presents Taking Steps by Alan Ayckbourn. Cast: Claire Brownell (Elizabeth), Luke Smith (Mark), Carson Elrod (Tristram), Richard Hollis (Roland), Matthew Greet (Leslie Bainbridge), Helen Cespedes (Kitty). Director: Sam Buntrock; Scenic Designer: Jason Sherwood; Costume Designer: Jennifer Caprio; Lighting Designer: David Weiner; Sound Designer: Joel Abbott; Hair and Wig Designer: J. Jared Janas; Fight Choreographer: Ryan Winkles; Production Stage Manager: Leslie Sears. Running Time: 2 hours 25 minutes including intermission; at the Boyd-Quinson Mainstage of the Barrington Stage Company, 30 Union St., Pittsfield, MA, from July 20; closing August 5.