THEATER REVIEW: “Taking Steps” @ Barrington Stage [Berkshire on Stage]

Luke Smith and Helen Cespedes (photo by Daniel Rader)
Luke Smith and Helen Cespedes (photo by Daniel Rader)

Review 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 BSC’s Boyd-Quinson Mainstage in Pittsfield. Ayckbourn himself directed the premiere in 1979 at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, England, where he served as Artistic Director for 37 years. The following year, when Michael Rudman mounted the piece at a West End theater using a proscenium arch, Ayckbourn complained that it was not a fair representation of his work.

Having written 77 plays and won 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!

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