Joseph Wegner, left, plays Tristram Watson and Justin Samuel Cowan plays Roland Crabbe in the Southern Oregon University production of Alan Ayckbourn's comedy 'Taking Steps.' - Photo by Darek Riley

'Taking Steps' opens at SOU

Dennis Smith says rehearsing a farce is a bit like "A Tale of Two Cities" — the best of times and the worst of times. "It's incredibly complicated," he says. "But it's fun. And it's good training for young actors."

The farce Southern Oregon University emeritus professor Smith is directing is Alan Ayckbourn's "Taking Steps," which SOU's Theatre Arts program will open Thursday, Nov. 4, in the Center Square Theatre on the SOU campus.

In the play, a haunted house, mistaken identities, bad timing and exaggerated personalities combine with Ayckbourn's fish-eyed look at the British middle class to produce rollicking fun.

Many of Ayckbourn's plays use unconventional or downright quirky staging, and "Taking Steps" is no exception. Doors typically play an important role in farce, but Ayckbourn subverted that tradition by having all the action take place simultaneously on three different floors of an old Victorian house. All three rooms are on a stage with a single level, and the audience can see what's going on in each simultaneously.

The production is set in the late 1970s disco era with a cast of Mallory Wedding as Elizabeth Crabbe, Justin Cowan as Roland Crabbe, Darek Riley as Mark Boxer, Joe Wegner as Tristram Watson, Carlos Lopez as Leslie Bainbridge and Lauryn Hochberg as Kitty.

Designers are Victoria Miller (scenic design), Molly Braithwaite (costumes), Kaylyn Kilkuskie (lighting) and Adam Johnson (sound). Olivia Todd is the stage manager.

Ayckbourn is one of the best-known and most prolific playwrights in the English-speaking world. At Scarborough in England, where his plays have their premieres, they are presented in the round. SOU's production will be in the three-quarters thrust configuration.

"I always find theater in the round more problematic," Smith says.

He says farce is like a tapestry in that you can't alter or remove even one thread without ruining the whole.

"The plotting is so often a very delicate business," he says, "and far beyond 'it's all in the timing.'

"Actors learn the importance of discipline and trusting the material when they work on a farce. The characters need to be spontaneous, but actors also need to bring reality to them."

This is Smith's 26th season directing for SOU. He has directed 28 productions in that time, most recently "Wild Oats," by John O'Keeffe, his adaptation of "An Enemy of the People," by Henrik Ibsen and "Arcadia," by Tom Stoppard. He also has directed productions for the Rogue Opera, Britt Festivals, Oregon Cabaret Theatre and Lyric Theatre.

"You have to keep more balls in the air in farce," he says. "It's also fun. You have the element of surprise in rehearsals. When something happens, little bits of timing, even a happy accident, the main thing is to keep yourself open."

He says the play puts plausible characters in implausible situations.

"It really is a tightrope between the contrivance of the characters and grounding a character we recognize," he says. "We don't want to enter cartoon land, although we flirt with it."

Tickets cost $21, $18 for seniors and $6 for students. Subscribers to three or more plays in SOU's six-play season receive a discounted price of $17 per play for regular subscribers and $15 per play for seniors. Call 541-552-6348 or visit www.sou.edu/theater for information.

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