Orton’s crazed spirit lives in JTC’s hilarious ‘What the Butler Saw’
Spoiler alert: there is no butler in What the Butler Saw. But there’s plenty to see and enjoy in Joe Orton’s scabrously funny 1967 comedy, as performed by the Jewel Theatre Company. This production concludes JTC’s ninth season with a bang, literally: it’s a slamming-door farce in which the set’s four doors repeatedly slam, identities are mistaken, switched, disguised and deconstructed, thwarted sexuality drives the plot, and anarchy runs riot over all. In other words, business as usual for Orton, the working-class Brit whose subversively witty comedies blazed across the London theatre scene during his brief mid-’60s career.
One of the great things about this production is it doesn’t feel dated at all. Yes, it’s rooted in the ‘60s, from the British Invasion soundtrack that greets audiences on the way to their seats, to B. Modern’s mod-influenced costumes. But Orton’s comic style is timeless; his tweaking of authority and cheeky disdain for hallowed traditions and bourgeois propriety would be equally at home on a 16th-Century Commedia dell’arte stage or last night’s cable TV comedy series. And the excellent JTC team mines the material for every possible laugh.
What the Butler Saw continues JTC’s fertile association with Shakespeare Santa Cruz alumni. Director Art Manke (whose credits include the wonderful Bach At Leipzig and The Three Musketeers for SSC) stages the piece with verve and clarity; even as the farcical elements ramp up, nothing onstage feels rushed or chaotic. And the inimitable Mike Ryan notches up another entertaining performance as Dr. Prentice, head of a tony private psychiatric clinic, whose aborted attempt to seduce his dewy new young secretary, Geraldine Barclay (a charming Audrey Rumsby), and his increasingly frazzled attempts to conceal this fact, especially from his virago wife (JTC Artistic Director Julie James), sow the seeds of mayhem in Orton’s frisky plot.
Also on board is the hilarious Danny Scheie as Dr. Rance, a civil servant visiting the clinic on behalf of the British government. As the principle representative of authority, it’s Dr. Rance’s function in the play to misinterpret evidence, misconstrue motives, and misdiagnose everyone else as a raving lunatic—and Scheie wrings the most out of every syllable of caustic observation and gleeful epiphany. His second act speech summing up perceived events in the most lurid possible terms is worth the price of admission all by itself.
When James’ imperious Mrs. Prentice bursts onto the scene, she has in tow one Nicholas Beckett (Josh Saleh), a sexy young working-class bellhop whom she failed to seduce the night before at a nearby hotel, but who nevertheless produces “pornographic photos” of their encounter which he hopes to trade for a better job. Beckett and Geraldine are the young innocents caught up in the crazed lies and schemes of their elders; they are the ones most often stripped down to their skivvies and forced to switch clothes and genders to suit the others’ frenzied plotting, and the stalwart Saleh and plucky Rumsby are delightful in the roles.
Rounding out the cast is a very funny Robert Sicular as a formidable London bobbie called Sergeant Match. As the other major authority figure, whose crisp uniform and demeanor suggest absolute control, he is, of course, doomed to the worst indignities, from cross-dressing to an accidental overdose of tranquilizers.
No amount of personal aplomb or official prestige can save you from random acts of lunacy in the Orton universe, and this production conveys Orton’s unfettered spirit in all its subversive glory.
The JTC production of What The Butler Saw plays through May 25 at Center Stage (1001 Center Street, SC). Call (831) 425-7506 or visit JewelTheatre.net for tickets and information.