Art of artifice
Many highs, one low in multilevel farce
In the program for the Blue Room Theatre’s current production of Alan Ayckbourn’s 1979 farce Taking Steps, the space usually occupied by a director’s note instead features “A word from the author.” Ayckbourn’s word is basically an explanation and rationalization for the play’s staging, which takes place in and on three stories of a somewhat dowdy, possibly haunted Victorian house. The conceit of his stage direction is that the set occupies only one plane, with two-dimensional “stairways” between the levels—a living room, master bedroom, and tiny attic “servant’s” bedroom—which are signified by the actors miming the ascending or descending of said stairs.
Following Ayckbourn’s instructions, master set designer Amber Miller gives us a clear view into each story of the house. And within this flattened house dwell people who, as farcical characters have a tendency to be, are amusing but also a bit two-dimensional. Elizabeth/Lizzie (played by Stephanie Gilbert)—as she never ceases to remind us—is a former professional dancer, of what sort we’re never quite sure, now unfulfillingly married to an amiable, rich, somewhat pompous and alcoholic bucket manufacturer named Roland (Richard Cross). Her brother, Mark (Rob Wilson, who directed this production), is also navigating marital difficulties with his estranged partner, Kitty (Delisa Freistadt). Complicating the complications are an ineffectual and befuddled visiting solicitor, Tristram (Rob Kayson), and financially strapped builder and anxious-to-sell landlord, Leslie (Nick Anderson).
Gilbert comically embodies the grace, haughtiness and frustration of a dancer thwarted from pursuing her chosen career by a dominating husband, but she allows the pathos at the heart of her character to show as well. The speech that most humanistically and humorously defines her character is directed to her brother about her husband: “It’s a wonderful thing being made to feel like a goddess, but after about 10 minutes, it gets very, very boring. I mean, I daren’t do anything normal in front of him now in case it shatters some illusion he’s got. I have to leave the room to scratch. … God help me if I get wind. I’d have to leave the country.”
Her brother, Mark, is less fortunate in his comic dilemma, and Wilson’s embodiment of the character may have been a bit too convincing in conveying this sleep-inducing characteristic. As he tells Lizzie, after she dozes off during one of his brief monologues, “That’s always happening to me these days, you know. I’m chatting away and people just seem to doze off. Happening more and more lately. Is it something to do with my tone of voice, do you think?”
Possibly so. During the intermission I heard more than one audience member confess to dozing off during the first act.
Fittingly, the second act begins with a rooster’s crowing in the distance as Tristram rouses himself from sleep in the master bedroom. Finding that he shared the bed with Lizzie is a shock, and being discovered by Mark complicates the situation further. And elevates it as well, driving Mark to a third-story encounter with a tongue-tied but talkative Kitty who’s been trapped in a cabinet in the attic.
With farcical characters stacked at multiple (imaginary) physical and metaphorical levels, Taking Steps successfully takes on multiple challenges of stagecraft and acting, and in this production Cross wrung the most laughter and sympathy from the audience with his comedic and woozy bluster.
For full effect, avoid submitting to Mark’s soporific charms.