Temple Times Online Edition
    APRIL 14, 2005
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Temple Theaters to present Ayckbourn’s ‘Taking Steps’

Temple Theaters’ Taking Steps stars second-year M.F.A. students in acting Michael Miller as Mark, Jenny Dempster as Elizabeth, Morgan Cox as Kitty and Kunal Nayyar as Tristram.

Take a rollicking British farce. Set it in what appears to be a staging oxymoron: a dilapidated three-story Victorian manor house but “all floors are at the same level … to simplify — or perhaps to complicate — matters” (the playwright’s explicit instructions in the script). Invite a hapless cast of characters that includes a wife facing a dilemma, a wayward fiancée who spends much of the play trapped in a closet, a bumbling solicitor and a drunken bucket manufacturer.

The result: Alan Ayckbourn’s Taking Steps, a quintessential farce that takes audiences on a freewheeling comic ride with its finely crafted twists and turns of plot and character. The Temple Theaters production — its Philadelphia premiere — opens Thursday, April 14 (preview performance Wednesday, April 13), at the Randall Theater.

“I take comedy very seriously,” said associate theater professor Doug Wager, who is directing the production. “This is one that hugs the road.”

Wager is best known for his tenure at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., where he built his reputation as an award-winning artistic director of that premier regional theater. He views the Ayckbourn comedy as a vehicle for the investigation of character.

“Ayckbourn doesn’t forsake character for the sake of a joke,” he said. “The key is finding the painful truth that resides within the character to get to the comic core of the material. It’s not going to be truly funny unless it stems from something truly painful.

“Most great comic writers of farce and comedy have a compassionate view of the human race,” Wager said. “Great comedies survive because nothing has really changed about human nature: The things we think we want are not the things we really need. Ayckbourn masterfully uses humor to mine this enduring human contradiction.”

Wager is no stranger to the playwright and his prodigious body of work. A decade ago, he directed The Revenger’s Comedies in its American premiere at the Arena Stage and traveled to England to meet with Ayckbourn at his theater in Scarborough. (Ayckbourn and his wife subsequently came to Washington for the premiere.)

“We bonded instantly,” he said. “I was able to ask him all of the practical production questions a director would ask a brilliant playwright who also happens to be a masterful director. His plays are characterized by ingenious theatrical devices; he loves to take full and gleeful advantage of situations that can only happen on stage.”

For the graduate actors in Temple’s Taking Steps production, the demands of such comedy are high.

“Acting in this play demands consummate technical virtuosity from the actor — the hallmark of all great comedic performances,” Wager said. “In addition to precise comic timing, the actor also has to inhabit the character emotionally and psychologically. And it’s a highly interactive task: The actor has to keep one foot in the audience and one foot in the play at all times.”

Add to that the unique demands of the staging — presenting the activities going on simultaneously on each floor of a three-story Victorian manor house on one stage level with only a suggestion of stairways.

“While it engages the audience’s willing suspension of disbelief, the actors are challenged to create the architecture virtually out of thin air.”

Working on this kind of material is extremely “healthy” for actors, Wager said.

“It challenges them to apply all the basic acting skills they’ve learned, along with a healthy dose of comedic skill work,” he said. “The technical demands of the comedy become a wonderfully creative acting springboard for the detailed investigation of character.”

Wager began his own career at Arena Stage as an intern in 1974, becoming resident director before serving as artistic director for seven seasons, from 1991 to 1998. For his work at Arena, he received three Helen Hayes Awards for Outstanding Director and 13 Helen Hayes Award nominations.

His work has been seen on and off Broadway, and regionally at the Mark Taper Forum, the Guthrie Theater, Seattle Repertory Theater, Pasadena Playhouse and Yale Repertory Theatre, among other venues. He also spent four seasons working in Los Angeles, directing, writing and producing for film and television, then served as director in residence at Philadelphia’s Prince Music Theatre before coming to Temple.

Designers for the Temple production of Taking Steps are Meghan Jones, set design, and Shon Causer, lighting design, both second-year M.F.A. candidates; Sarah Moore, costume design, a first-year M.F.A. candidate; and Andrew Monheim, sound design, an undergraduate double-major in theater and art history.

- By Harriet Goodheart

‘Taking Steps’
Taking Steps opens on Thursday, April 14, at 7 p.m. Evening performances continue at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, April 15 and 16, and Monday through Saturday, April 18–23. Matinee performances are scheduled on both Saturdays, April 16 and 23, at 2 p.m.

Tickets are $15 and are available through Ticketmaster at 215-336-2000, at any Ticketmaster outlet or at www.ticketmaster.com. Students and seniors pay $12 (with proper ID; cash only). Temple students are admitted free with a confirmation card. For cash-only advance sales, tickets can be purchased at the Liacouras Center Box Office. Hours of operation are Monday through Friday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., and Saturday, 12-5 p.m. For group sales, contact Pat Allen at 215-204-1334 or patallen@temple.edu.