‘Taking Steps’ at Colonial Players by Amanda Gunther

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Anyone fancy a farce? It doesn’t get much funnier than the romp that’s running up and down three flights of steps, all laid out on one single-level stage in the round, as Colonial Players presents Alan Ayckbourn’s Taking Steps. Directed by Barbara Marder, this roaring good physical comedy will keep you in stitches as six individuals race up and down the stairs, dive in and out of bedrooms, and bumble about one stormy night and the morning that then follows. A fine evening out and a fantastic way for Colonial Players to close their 64th season, this is truly a comic gem in the right hands and makes for a hilarious evening of theatre.

(l to r) Watson (Paul Webster), Roland (Ken Sabel), and Mark (Luke Tudball). Photo courtesy of Colonial Players.
(l to r) Watson (Paul Webster), Roland (Ken Sabel), and Mark (Luke Tudball). Photo courtesy of Colonial Players.

Set Designer Edd Miller does a spectacular job furnishing the three story house in the confines of the rectangular ‘in-the-round’ space and still making it a believable multi-leveled playing space. Miller keeps the furniture looking appropriate for rich man living in a rundown mansion. His placement of the high attic bedroom, where a good deal of the physical shtick occurs, off in the far corner really allows for it to feel like a separate entity to the house. The spacing of the various furnishings, be it large bed in the master bedroom, or the sundry-style sofa down in the main sitting room, are pleasantly placed so as to allow the actors enough room for hysterical happenings with their physical comedy.

Director Barbara Marder has crafted a brilliant British farce upon the stage; between her coaching for the proper accents and her keen sense of pauses amid funnier moments, this production is a dose of high-end hysterics that keeps you chuckling straight through to the end. Marder has an impeccable sense of how to keep the momentum of the production flowing while still etching in moments of tremendous pause allowing for uproarious outbursts from the audience as the comedy of all they see truly sinks in before their eyes. There is a strong sense of correct execution when it comes to these pauses, and Marder makes sure that they only fall exactly when necessary, keeping the story moving.

Marder also crafts six unique British accents, one for each character, ranging from the upper high-end proper sound of stuffy brother Mark, to the very crass almost cockney-sounding Kitty. Roland and Elizabeth fall somewhere in-between with much more subtle accents, only certain words bringing out their true British sound, and Watson as well as Bainbridge share an accent that blends the highlands with the lowlands and everything else between. Accents in a show where the characters are clearly meant to be of one nationality or another can make or break a performance, especially if they are not done correctly, but Marder succeeds well beyond expectations with creating the proper sound and making effective use of these accents in this production.

Every actor really digs into the roots of their character making this production a profile of characters on top of all the slap-happy farcical humor that’s happening. Playing well against one another in the most intriguing of ways, each of the performers brings a fascinating approach to the production adding a layer of comical depth to their roles that makes the show an overall smashing success.

Heard from the least, as her character is derived mostly from silent physical comedy, Kitty (Sarah Wade) is a timid little creature. Wade is extremely expressive, an important element of success for her character as she is given very little dialogue to work with, but when she does speak, her accent is the most convincing in the production. Relying heavily upon pained facial expressions, which read to the audience as absolutely hilarious, Wade succeeds in translating all of character’s woes through over-exaggerated moments of existence, particularly during her numerous attempts to escape down the stairs. The burbling nubile chemistry between her character and Watson makes for an even more awkwardly hilarious series of moments, adding to the overall enjoyment of the production.

Watson (Paul Webster) is the epitome of a nervous-Nelly incarnate. Jittery from head to toe, Webster really grounds the character’s existence in the constant stuttering and misspoken words creating a laughable quirky and terribly awkward presence on the stage. His physical responses to noises unseen are riotous; watching him leap nearly a floor’s worth of steps in sheer surprise and terror results in gut-bursting laughs from the audience. Webster is an uncanny example of frazzled nerves and his facial expressions are particularly valuable as many of his more comic moments are moments of his character’s silence.

Creating the lumber and intimidating presence is Roland (Ken Sabel). With his slightly posh aristocratic gestures and airs it is difficult to see at first that he’s little more than a bumbling overpaid drunk. Sabel digs right into the melodrama of the character later in the performance, bemoaning the more dreadful moments of his life once his character becomes sloshed, making for a rousing good laugh. Sabel’s finest moments come from the romping shenanigans that occur ‘the morning after’ with Mark and Watson down in the main sitting room; loud enough tomfoolery to wake the dead.

Bainbridge (Eric Hufford) who insights a good deal of the chaos by pushing the sale of the house, is a peculiar fellow from the moment he arrives. Hufford takes the chipper approach with an all too eager grin and voice to match when trying to be brutally pleasant. His comedy is dependant solely on line delivery, which he executes flawlessly. Until, of course, the second act when his mistaken identity gets him into a spot of trouble; a most laughable set of circumstances carried off with a rather physically polished flare.

The meat and potatoes of the comedy come down to Lizzie (Heather Bagnall) and Mark (Luke Tudball). The brother and sister duo carry a good deal of the laughs on their shoulders, but play spectacularly with everyone else in the production. Bagnall is highly physical in her exasperation over the whole situation and uses both her voice and her facial expressions to portray these extreme emotions that course through her character’s veins. Watching her on the steps as she tries to sneak about and flee the house is nothing short of uproarious; the way she freezes and holds awkward poses as she frantically tries to keep from being discovered will keep you rolling with laughter.

Roland (Ken Sabel), Bainbridge (Eric Hufford), and Elizabeth (Heather Bagnall). Photo courtesy of Colonial Players.
Roland (Ken Sabel), Bainbridge (Eric Hufford), and Elizabeth (Heather Bagnall). Photo courtesy of Colonial Players.

And while each character takes the steps in their own stride, there is no one who does so quite distinctly as Like Tudball. Everything about his character is rigid and stiff, if a bit wimpy and whingy, so watching him march up the steps like a fuming nanny with his hands stuffed furiously in his pockets simply takes the cake in this production. Tudball’s overall physical approach to the character makes him extra stuffy, which lends itself to all of the complaining that’s written into his dialogue. The impeccable delivery of his more comedic lines timed with his tendency to overact to the most bizarre situations while under-reacting to the more serious ones makes his performance simply perfect.

Be sure you take the right steps to ensure that you don’t miss Taking Steps, as this comedy is certainly not one that should slip you by this summer.

Running Time: Two hours and 20 minutes, with one intermission.

Taking Steps plays through June 29, 2013 at Colonial Players – 108 East Street, in Annapolis, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (410) 268-7373, or purchase them online.

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Amanda Gunther is an actress, a writer, and loves the theatre. She graduated with her BFA in acting from the University of Maryland Baltimore County and spent two years studying abroad in Sydney, Australia at the University of New South Wales. Her time spent in Sydney taught her a lot about the performing arts, from Improv Comedy to performance art drama done completely in the dark. She loves theatre of all kinds, but loves musicals the best. When she’s not working, if she’s not at the theatre, you can usually find her reading a book, working on ideas for her own books, or just relaxing and taking in the sights and sounds of her Baltimore hometown. She loves to travel, exploring new venues for performing arts and other leisurely activities. Writing for the DCMetroTheaterArts as a Senior Writer gives her a chance to pursue her passion of the theatre and will broaden her horizons in the writer’s field.