Onstage in Tucson: Ayckbourn Farce Taking Steps at Live Theatre Workshop

It's that time of year when some of us are a bit more free to get out of town occasionally, and whether you want to go or have to go, you might need a guide to diversions in strange places. Curtains is happy to visit such exotic locales as Anthem and Tucson on your behalf, in search of the thrills that only live theater can provide.

Despite the Old Pueblo's kickass $3.49 gasoline last weekend (and the cataclysmic blood orange and blackberry sangria at El Charro, now with five locations!), I now know that I wouldn't recommend this 234-mile round trip merely to see Live Theatre Workshop's production of Taking Steps.

But if you're there anyway with a few hours to kill, it's an opportunity to catch several zippy moments of extreme physical comedy in a well-paced show from a respectable company that's fun to get acquainted with -- particularly this month, as theater seasons nationwide tend to be powering down for the summer.

Like many community theaters, especially those that have to come up with ways to pay for the overhead of having their own space, LTW has a mainstage series, an edgier late-night series, and programming and shows for kids. With a small house and what appears to be a dedicated subscriber base, they're able to load all three series with scripts that aren't produced with the maddening frequency of some amateur faves. Hooray for that!

I'm actually rather fond of Brit playwright Alan Ayckbourn's farces. It was the beautifully filmed BBC version of The Norman Conquests trilogy, starring Tom Conti as the scruffy, reprehensible title character, that introduced me to Ayckbourn's writing and kind of spoiled me for broad comedies that are only a little more bedroomy and not nearly as witty. But it's possible, I'm afraid, to blast right by the nuances of his characters and dialogue and still produce a fairly amusing romp, and that's what's on the boards in Tucson at the moment.

Kristi Loera's direction and Richard and Amanda Gremel's set play well to the requirements of LTW's space, which features a three-sided thrust stage and tight entryways. So furniture needs to be low, playing spaces need to enable clear views from 270 degrees, and visual communication depends largely on actors and their accouterments.

Happily, Taking Steps was originally conceived to shine on a non-proscenium stage, is set in a shabbily furnished, poorly lit rental house, and, best of all, was written to play with space and perception on purpose (as Ayckbourn tends to do) by placing all three floors of the home on one level and treating the stairs, as well as the walls between rooms, as real but invisible to the audience.

This is a challenge to describe but was immediately made clear in performance by the dialogue and staging, with the exception of one "closet" in the "attic" that confused several patrons to the extent that they had to audibly ask one another about it.

Nevertheless, it's automatically fun to be in on things the characters don't know about (what's going on in the dark/in the next room/on another floor), and Loera's cast pulled off the requisite rushing about with daredevil enthusiasm. Nicholas Sebastian Gallardo's flat-footed leap over an occasional table with a glass of Scotch in one hand was particularly impressive.

But, but, but. Despite the impressive slapstick and adequate pacing and energy, the two acts dragged because of some wretched dialect work, ignorance of things British and/or dated, some of which seemed pretty obvious (if "champers" is in the script, for example, one can assume a particular cocktail includes, among other ingredients, sparkling wine), and countless missed opportunities to honor and savor humor that was inherent in character and dialogue (and, again, easy enough to uncover through research -- or choose to ignore at one's peril).

I did laugh a lot, though -- and I admit I am a lot more picky about my personal favorite things being done brilliantly than you might be (especially since we probably don't have all the same personal favorite things). So if you're Tucson-bound in the next couple of weeks, weigh Taking Steps among your entertainment options, travel safely, and keep that sangria in mind.

Taking Steps continues through Sunday, June 12, at Live Theatre Workshop, 5317 East Speedway Boulevard in Tucson. To order tickets, $15 to $18, call 520-327-4242 or follow the directions here to request seats by e-mail.

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Julie has written for the Night & Day events calendar section since 2005. As a student at Arizona State, she received the Glendon and Kathryn Swarthout Creative Writing Award and the Theatre Medallion of Merit.
Contact: Julie Peterson