Clothes off, clothes on, rapid exits and entrances, mistaken identities,
deftly delivered dialogue -- this show has it all. The prodigiously
funny Carolyn Hennesy reigns over a capable cast in Joe Orton's
unexpurgated British version of his oft-performed black comedy. The
laughs are steady, and Orton leaves few institutions off his list as he
pokes fun at marriage, sex, gender, psychiatry, and government
bureaucracy. Orton's intent was for the audience to be insiders,
watching the action as a butler might. Helmed by skilled director Kiff
Scholl, this production starts off with a bang, and it has wit enough to
match some of Shakespeare's best comedic tricks.
The play opens in the psychiatric office of Dr. Prentice (Carl J.
Johnson) as he is interviewing a secretarial candidate, Geraldine
Barclay (Kelsey Wedeen). An ingenuous blonde, she follows Prentice's
directions to undress and be thoroughly examined. Prentice's wife (Hennesy)
arrives unexpectedly, and from this starting point, an ever-spiraling
series of improbable events takes place that include a visiting
government inspector (Peter Altschuler), who is monitoring "the
madness"; a bellhop (Joe Hendrix), who arrives with a set of
pornographic photos from his liaison with Mrs. Prentice; and a London
bobby (David Gueriera) who is investigating the disappearance of a
concrete priapus severed by explosion from a statue of Winston
Hennesy, sporting an enormous black beehive hairdo, manages to register
surprise, shock, disdain, or elegant superiority with studied hilarity.
It's hard not to monitor her reactions, even when she is not central to
the scene. Johnson is suitably beleaguered as the husband trying to
cover up his deeds, and Hendrix, Altschuler, and Gueriera enliven the
proceedings. Wedeen is perfect, as her interview turns into a slapstick
The production does justice to Orton's dry and irreverent satire. Though
some humor is directed at British audiences, there are enough crazies in
America for the jokes to ring true here as well.
© 2008 BackStage
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“Doctor, help me! I keep seeing naked men!”
“From now on, we shall never have sex except in a linen cupboard.”
(Two of my favorite lines from What The Butler Saw.)
Imagine a play which deals with and/or features (in alphabetical order)
depravity, disguises, gender identity, the government, hanky-panky,
hermaphroditism, homosexuality, incest, insanity, marriage, mistaken
identities, nymphomania, pederasty, psychiatry, rape, religion, reunited
orphan siblings, slapstick, and transvestitism. Imagine this play being
one of most laugh-out-loud outrageous and uproarious farces ever. Now
imagine this farce having been written by a gay Englishman at a time
when homo-sex was still a criminal offense in his native land. No wonder
London audiences booed Joe Orton’s What The Butler Saw when it was first
staged there in 1969, 2 years after the playwright’s death.
Orton’s final play remains as outrageous and over-the-top in 2008 as it
was 40 years ago, but (thankfully) society has changed and so too has
the reaction to What The Butler Saw. What once provoked boos now elicits
audience guffaws, cheers, and critical acclaim as Sacred Fool’s current
revival so richly illustrates.
For once there will be no play synopsis here, for two reasons. First,
because to even begin to describe the intricacies of Orton’s plot would
simply take up too much space. Secondly, because half the fun of What
The Butler Saw is in the element of surprise. (For those interested in a
synopsis, however, there is a detailed one which Chicago’s Court Theater
has graciously posted online.
Click here for a preview of the mayhem and madness of What The
Butler Saw or, if you’ve already seen the Sacred Fools’ production, to
test yourself on how much you remember.)
Suffice it to say that the cast of characters is as follows:
• Dr. Prentice, head of a Mental Health Clinic whose purpose “isn’t to
cure, but to liberate and exploit madness,” and who, by the play’s end,
has been accused of being “a transvestite, fetishist, bisexual
• Mrs. Prentice, the good doctor’s wife. “You were born with your legs
apart,” the doctor tells her. “They'll send you to the grave in a
• Geraldine Barclay, from the Friendly Faces Employment Bureau, applying
for the position of secretary at Dr. Prentice’s clinic, who can take
shorthand at a remarkable 20 words a minute, though she hasn’t yet
mastered the typewriter keyboard
• Nicholas Beckett, a pageboy at the Station Hotel who engages in sexual
intercourse with hotel guests for the purposes of blackmail
• Dr. Rance, a Government inspector whose visit to Dr. Prentice’s clinic
convinces him that “We’ve phallic worship under our noses, or I’m a
• Sergeant Match, a policeman baffled by all of the above
Like any screwball farce worth its money, What The Butler Saw features
fast-paced dialog, countless entrances, exits, and crossed and uncrossed
paths, mistaken identities, and last minutes surprise twists. Sacred
Fools’ crackerjack production also features brief flashes of nudity (one
pair of breasts and one penis). Since the play was written by a man of
the homosexual persuasion, gay audience members (and women) get the
longer stick (no pun intended). Cheesecake is fleeting, whereas
the pageboy and the bobby appear in their undies for extended periods of
time, one of them in jockey shorts and the other wearing naught but a
jock strap. By the end of the production, most of the cast has either
cross-dressed, worn someone else’s clothes and/or a straitjacket, or
One of the best reasons to see a Joe Orton play is his droll, quotable
dialog, sort of what a bawdier, more contemporary Oscar Wilde might have
written. Here are just a handful of examples:
--He attempted to rape me.
--Did he succeed?
--Oh, the service in these hotels is dreadful.
--He might go insane.
--This is a mental home. He couldn’t pick a better place.
--Lunatics are melodramatic. The subtleties of life are wasted on them.
--You can't take lovers in Asia! The air fare would be crippling.
--Is it policemen or young boys you're after? At your age, it's high
time you came to a decision.
Director Kiff Scholl (assisted by Amada D’Angelo) knows that to have a
successful farce, the staging must be fast and furious, and that the
cast he assembles must have flair, razor-sharp timing, and be totally
committed to the author's intentions. Scholl's staging is indeed fast
and furious, and although one or two of the cast members seem still
slightly unsure of their lines, the show is filled with memorably
In fact, in Tera Struck’s 60s costumes and Joel Scher and Kelsey
Wedeen’s wigs, many of the characters get laughs just coming onstage,
among them Wedeen herself, as Geraldine, with her permanent wide-eyed
slightly blank stare, an adorable way of flicking back her very long,
very blonde hair whilst removing her stockings, and a touch of Audrey
Hepburn in her voice. As Mrs. Prentice, the award-winning Carolyn
Hennesy sports a black beehive a foot high, 60s black eyeliner, and a
dry, sophisticated delivery that makes even throwaway lines funny. Carl
J. Johnson’s Dr. Prentice comes across so sincere of heart that he
manages to make the good doctor’s lechery seem harmless, and shows a
gift for physical comedy in a scene in which he must frantically hide
Geraldine’s shoes. Peter Altschuler portrays Dr. Rance with a face of
constant disapproval, and the ability to give a instantaneous and
detailed diagnosis completely un-based in fact, like a medical Sherlock
Holmes who gets everything completely wrong. Joe Hendrix’s innocent
expression hides quite the scheming Nicholas, and he is very funny as
when Orton’s script dresses him in full drag, hairy legs and all. David
Gueriera, as the daffy Sergeant Match, is a fine comic and especially
good sport in a hilarious sequence requiring him to do physical comedy
with drug stiffened limbs, wearing only the previously mentioned jock
Dan Mailley and Christopher Goodson’s excellent pink and green toned set
looks like a bit of Miami transported to England. Brandon Clark’s props,
and John Sylvain’s lighting, and Mark McLain Wilson's sound design are
likewise first rate.
After their hugely successful production of Drood: The Mystery of Edwin
Drood, this terrific revival of Joe Orton’s most controversial, risqué,
and deliciously shocking farce means that the theater is on a British
roll, and theatergoers not easily shocked will likely be spreading the
word about What The Butler Saw for weeks to come.
© 2008 L.A. StageScene
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