Anyone who loves the theatre must make tracks to Buffalo for the Irish Classical Theatre Company’s production of Loot. Bad-boy playwright Joe Orton’s snappy, brilliantly outrageous take on death, greed and morality brings home as many truths today as its London première (following more re-writes than Stephen Harper’s platform) in 1966.
Robert Knopf’s lively paced, detail-rich direction is effectively reinforced by Scott Behrend’s sparse but forever functional set (Why have a cupboard when it can be imagined?!), allowing the energetic cast and the tailor’s dummy to fly about the four-sided stage and bring the tale of murder, robbery and mayhem to life with, er, conviction.
The plot revolves around the recently deceased matriarch of the McLeavy household. Her grieving husband (Peter Jaskowiak, who looks the part but needs to slow the tempo of his delivery to be more believable and give the many punch lines thrown his way something sturdier to bounce off) can’t wait to inherit his wife’s cash and establish a rose garden in her memory. Nurse Fay (Kristen Tripp Kelley, wonderfully sensual but a nickel shy of truly savouring her seemingly unstoppable streak of mercy-killings-for-profit) wants the dearly departed’s husband to propose to her on the way to the burial in exchange for a portion of the recently “updated” will.
The couple’s only son, Hal (John Warren), is cursed with the inability to tell a lie. He spends much of his time in oral self-flagellation even as he reveals the role of himself and best friend/undertaker-in-training Dennis (Michael Providence, able and secure throughout, but just in need of more experience in the oh-so-subtle art of comedic timing) in tunnelling from the funeral home into a bank, grabbing bags of loot, hiding the spoils in the casket (Who would ever look there?) and—nothing more Freudian than this—dumping his dead mom in the closet.
Warren seems born for the part. His rapid-fire delivery is a marvel, using every bit of his breath, tongue and mouth to leap head and shoulders above his colleagues, and providing all patrons with every nuance of Orton’s saucy, satirical dialogue. (Fay. You’ve added murder to the list of insults heaped upon your family? Hal. One doesn’t have to murder to acquire a corpse.) Whether searching for a hidden-away key in his underwear or performing a pas de deux (er, trois if you count the coffin) with “baby” Dennis, Warren’s movement speaks louder than words. And his facial expressions (e.g., after offering that you can’t get pregnant in prison) confirm his especial understanding of Orton’s social subtext.
Of course there’s no heist without a detective. ICTC artistic director Vincent O’Neill brings his wealth of experience and wisdom to the character of Truscott. The water-inspector/detective has the lion’s share of Act II. O’Neill tirelessly ferrets out the truth before choosing which parts of it will both solve the case and feather his nest. At various times, Orton calls upon the symbol of authority to kick the shit out of his prisoner, declaim the lack of intelligence in women (with a suitably vigorous reaction from both sexes of the opening-night crowd), and, in a gesture that belongs in the dénouement Hall of Fame, drop his disguise and become Truscott of the Yard. To his credit, not a smattering of John Cleese seeped into the act.
The Monty Python tone was left to David Butler as Meadows—Truscott’s right-hand cop. The brief appearance was just the tonic to the zany antics of Fay, Hal and Dennis as—like a Mozart bedroom opera—they, literally, played hide the dummy. Who knew that two words “the end” would be tears-in-your-eyes funny? Marvellous!
The work of Joe Orton, like James Dean’s films, just got going before tragedy truncated their careers. Dean flittered with high-speed cars and died in a crash. Orton’s downfall was his success. His working career began as a junior clerk. After stints at the Leicester Dramatic Academy and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, the asthmatic actor met and moved in with Kenneth Halliwell. The lovers lived on Halliwell’s inheritance and tried writing novels together. They were notorious jokers and, after borrowing library books, defacing their covers (ribald) and rewriting the blurbs (outlandish) before returning them, were caught and sent to prison for 6 months in 1962.
Their writing partnership soon ended, but they remained together. Orton’s radio scripts, then stage plays started to achieve success—notable for his fearless and macabre subject matter. Finally, after returning home early from a holiday, Halliwell snapped and bludgeoned Orton to death.
Knowing that terrible history, then seeing Loot, adds another dimension to the notion of artist as risk taker. Both Orton’s memory and genius are well-served by this production. JWR