Taking Steps, Constellation Theatre Company
Before I get to the review, a brief note of introduction: My name is Jess and I will occasionally be stopping by to review local DC shows. I have been in the district for a few years now and have a background in dramaturging and teaching theatre. (To be fair, I don’t plan on reviewing anything by theatres I’ve recently worked with.)
With that said, on to Constellation Theatre’s Taking Steps.
As this is my first time here on the blog, I feel like I should be really tough on the show to prove that I am a very serious and analytical critic.
A: that’s pretentious and annoying.
And B: this is not the show to do that type of writing on.
Taking Steps is fun. It's silly. It's like Noises Off without the sardines.
And, most importantly, it’s well done.
Taking Steps is a 1979 farce by the multiple award-winning British playwright, Alan Ayckbourn. The action takes place in an old three-story Victorian mansion in a small England town. The house is a former brothel and is also rumored to be haunted. It is currently being leased by Elizabeth, a former dancer of dubious skill, and Roland, her wealthy, alcoholic, businessman husband.
Elizabeth is unhappy and plots to leave Roland. She seeks the help of her brother, Mark, but he is busy dealing with his continually running-away fiance, Kitty.
For his part, Roland is oblivious to his wife’s discontent and is focused on negotiating the purchase of their house. To accomplish this, he meets with Leslie, the owner, who is in financial straits and so is desperate to sell, and Tristram, a representative from Roland’s solicitors office, a painfully shy and awkward paperwork man who doesn't usually interact with clients.
Roland, Mark, and Leslie want their plans to come to fruition as exactly as they intend. Elizabeth and Kitty want freedom.
Tristram just wants to survive the night and not get fired.
The point-by-point particulars of how the plot plays out aren't worth spoiling and ultimately aren't important.
Part of the comedy of the piece comes from all of these desires coming into conflict.
Another large part comes from the set design (by AJ Guban).
The space is set up in the round with several exit areas. Each of the three levels of the house are presented side by side on the same plane so the audience can see where all of the characters are at once. The ‘stairs’ between each level are indicated by an angled staircase handrail. Each time an actor goes ‘up’ or ‘down’ to a different level of the house, they have to mime walking on stairs, which is done to great comedic effect.
All of the cast is great but there are a couple of performances worth highlighting:
First, Matt Wilson as Roland. As Roland gets increasingly drunk, Wilson’s physicality and timing get increasingly funnier.
Another special mention needs to be made of Matthew McGee as Tristram. His stuttering, apologizing, twitchy performance is hilarious, but he also pulls off the one truly moving scene of the play, where Tristram finally feels comfortable and can express all of the thoughts and deep feelings that his nerves normally block.
Director Allison Arkell Stockman keeps up the pace throughout the play and makes sure that each scene has a true sense of urgency.
The last fifteen minutes or so do drag a bit, but really that’s the only complaint.
I have seen a number of Constellation shows before and always felt that they were 85% successful. An ambitious season of plays, good design, some great actors...but things never wholly gelled. Taking Steps is the first time that I didn't feel that way. Everything works together beautifully.
In the end, will this play change your life? Nope.
But - you will laugh.
You will have the chance to appreciate some excellent characterization and physical comedy, and some very smart staging and set design. And you will support a small theatre company that is ambitious, professional, and improving.
And - at a reasonably priced 20 to 35 bucks (with discounts if you can get ahold of a postcard) – that is a pretty great night at the theatre.
Rating: 4/5 stars. Recommended.
Taking Steps runs through October 7 with shows Thursday through Sunday.
Source Theatre (1835 14th Street NW, near the U street metro).