We've all been there. You're a middle-aged "retired" (read, talentless) dancer, furtively packing to leave your husband for the umpteenth time, trying to convince your brother this one will stick while he blathers on about his fleet-footed fiancée. Oh, you haven't? In that case, you may not identify with the setting of Ferndale Repertory Theater's newest production like I did but I bet you'll laugh.
Set in the London countryside in the late 1970s, Alan Ayckbourn's classic farce Taking Steps tells the tangled story of six crumbling lives over the course of an evening and the following morning, all within a dilapidated three-story Victorian house called The Pines. (Sounds like a dingy Eureka motel, no?)
Interrupting Elizabeth's (Ruthie Engelke) midday absconding is none other than the catalyst of the play, Mr. Tristram Watson, Esq (T.J. Hardy), an explosively inarticulate man and her husband Roland's (Dave Fuller) solicitor. He's come bearing finalized contracts for the purchase of The Pines, an appointment Roland has forgotten. Elizabeth sends her brother Mark (Daniel Baer), a criminally boring man constantly putting people to sleep with his droning, to intercept the man and aid in her getaway. Mark bristles. He has things to do, like pick up his estranged fiancée Kitty (Carin Billings), who may or may not be (but definitely is) a prostitute. But, being the whiny doormat that he is, Mark acquiesces. Mr. Watson's breathless, 200-mile-per-hour entrance sets the tone and pace for the rest of the show like the rabbit at a dog race, and the cast is off and running.
The show is something of an oxymoron. The dialogue is ripping fast and at the same time the story is plodding. The script induces impatient groans and belly-aching laughter with the same frequency. No one understands each other, but we understand them.
The set is static throughout the play—no clunky scene changes with actors scampering about in the dark dragging furniture on wheels — and it is immaculate. Posh, overwhelmingly red and soulless, the house is exactly what a man more concerned with the appearance of status than the effect of it (as Roland is) would purchase. But it's a dump, managed and leased by shady local builder Leslie Bambridge (Montel Vander Horck III). The floors bow, the roof leaks and you can hear the water pipes roar if you put your ear to the floor of the master bedroom in just the right place. The home had a previous life as a bordello and, as the story goes, a lady of the night who perished there still haunts the place, laying with men to whom she takes a fancy and "sucking the life out of them."
In an almost-too-clever piece of set design, each floor occupies the same vertical space on the stage. Characters ascend and descend the stairs through mime, each time with more pageantry. This clustering of locations leads to some hysterical juxtapositions. At one point, Kitty sits on the maid's bed on the third floor, weeping over her station, while Mr. Watson stands right beside her one floor down, believing the cries to have "something to do with the paranormal laws of the supernatural."
Even with some opening weekend fumbles and miscues, the show is exceptionally tight thanks to Cindy Shepard's direction and her ensemble. So much of comedy is pacing, one missed cue and the whole scene can fall flat. These folks were on time like a metronome.
What sets Taking Steps apart from other farces is that behind all the slapstick and sexual innuendo lies a message. At its heart, it's a show about women seeking freedom. Elizabeth abandons Roland because she thinks he's the only thing preventing her from reviving her dance career. Kitty can't stand the thought of being the center of Mark's dream or subject to another of his dreadfully dull diatribes. For all their faults and selfishness, the women's intentions are admirable. Who doesn't seek to break their shackles?
I'd like to personally thank each and every actor for not attempting an English accent. There's nothing worse than a bad accent, except bad comedy (so that's two catastrophes avoided if you're counting). Though it is a bit odd to see typically brash Americans say things like "Oh, it's just dreadful, isn't it so terrible? What weather," and avoid minor shame like the plague. But that's a low hurdle.
A few last kudos are in order. The show I saw was sparsely attended, the attendees more like a funeral procession than the audience of a comedy. Ripping off jokes to little or no response can make you feel like you're going the way of the Hindenburg, weaken your knees, put a nervous vibrato in your voice. But the cast, to a one, was ever stalwart, loud, fast and keep going. That's no easy task. And cast, if you're reading this, you weren't bad; the audience was.
Ferndale Repertory Theatre's Taking Steps runs through Feb. 17 at 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and at 2 p.m. on Sundays. Call 786-5483 or visit www.ferndalerep.org.
The timely comedy about fences, neighbors and culture clash Native Gardens plays at the North Coast Repertory Theatre through Feb. 10. For more information, call 442-NCRT or visit www.ncrt.net.
Family theater returns to the Arcata Playhouse Feb. 2 with The Man Who Planted Trees by Scotland's Puppet State Theatre. Call 822-1575 or visit www.arcataplayhouse.org.
Feb. 7-9, the Carlo Theatre is once again host to the masked shenanigans of Comedia Dell'Arte, in which Dell'Arte students bring their bawdy best to the traditional style of comedy. Call 668-5663 or visit www.dellarte.com.