JWR Articles: Live Event - What the Butler Saw (Director: Dawn E. Crysler) - July 15, 2008
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What the Butler Saw

2.5 2.5

A version of this review appeared in the June 19-25, 2008 edition of Pulse Niagara
It's all in the delivery

Stray Theatre’s journey into the manic world of Joe Orton in the richly-appropriate confines of a private clinic for the mentally insane is a frustratingly uneven affair that—despite a few moments of hilarity—can’t tap into the satiric humour that lurks on every page.

Reading his last play (produced posthumously in 1969 with the likes of Sir Ralph Richardson in the cast) is a tears-in-your-eyes pleasure every time; the mind’s imagination—endlessly stoked by Orton’s outrageous love of on-the-edge life and all things lewd and lecherous—can’t wait for a staging of this frantically paced farce (which brings an entirely new meaning to the term “dénouement!”).

Of the sextet of characters, four are required to strip and “innocently” venture into a covey of deliciously taboo subjects (in the “civilized” parlours of ‘60s) including cross-dressing, incest, rape, promiscuity, adultery, penis envy and the unexpected value of accessorizing your pet Pekinese. What could possibly go wrong with the short-lived playwright’s brilliant buffet of the absurd revealing the truth of existence?

As the cliché goes, it’s all in the delivery.

Similar in style and tone, Loot, perhaps Orton’s best-known work started life as a miserable flop. “Unless Loot is directed and acted perfectly seriously the play will fail. … A director who imagines that the only object is to get a laugh is not for me,” bemoaned the angry writer in 1965.

Director Dawn E. Crysler took on a considerable challenge by undertaking to bring What the Butler Saw to the intimate confines of The Space. Her enthusiastic cast and crew gave it their all, but require a large dose of “less is more” as they move progressively deeper into the dark side of human relationships. Too often the tone ran closer to Monty Python (nudge, nudge, wink, wink) than the far funnier dry understatement and careful tempo that enables an audience to savour the wordplay and leave the big yuks for the “bawdy” language of the players as their clothes drop off and more than their physiques are revealed.

In the early going, chief psychiatrist Dr. Prentice (Jack Wieler) is giving a “couch” interview to Geraldine Barclay (Katherine Dubois), a nubile young woman who has come to apply for the position of secretary. Just as the lecherous employer is about to conduct a highly personal test of a new “contraceptive device,” their coitus is most certainly interuptus by the unexpected intrusion of nymphomaniac/souse Mrs. Prentice (Mary Laundry). With his naked prospective employee hidden behind a screen, the good doctor is left holding Geraldine’s dress, inspiring his partner to ask a few questions:

Mrs Prentice: What are you doing holding that dress?

Prentice: It’s an old one of yours.

Mrs Prentice: Have you taken up transvestism? I’d no idea our marriage teetered on the edge of fashion.

Prentice: Our marriage is like the peace of God – it passeth all understanding.

Funny stuff on many levels if allowed to play as seriously as Orton intended. At the Sunday matinée, the lines came too fast and loud leaving the audience unaware of the mirth before them.

While her husband tries to conceal his infidelity, his sex-crazed wife has no qualms about relating her recent “rape” at the young hands of the Station Hotel’s pageboy, Nick (Michael Greves, who starts off promisingly, parades with uninhibited gusto in his hot-red briefs, but catches a case of line-stumble from the medical practitioners in Act II).

The extra fly in this ointment is the sudden appearance of Dr. Rance (Mac Dodge). Her Majesty’s simple servant has come to review the clinic, all the while hoping to stumble upon enough material to pen another bestselling book.

To ensure that there’s never a moment’s peace for the fornicating physician, the set (his consulting room “designed by a lunatic”) has more entryways than the 400/401 junction. Before you can say “cover my ass” Geraldine and Nick have changed clothes, Dr. Rance is signing committal orders and a police constable (Pat Noonan is a visual gem in his leopard spots, drawing some of the best laughs of the show) comes on scene hot on the heels of Nick, whose wayward limb made the mistake of sampling the charms of a group of school girls but not diddling their supervisor.

But rather than restore order to what is minute-by-minute becoming a loony bin to rival Parliament, he’s soon passed out in his boxers, allowing Nick to doff his frock before streaking across the stage wearing nothing but the upholder of law-and-order’s helmet.

No spoilers here, but the final few moments are truly incredible, awash in unbelievable coincidence and a phallic symbol that, hilariously, ties all of the plot together.

When the actors calm down, and Crysler lets the words speak louder than the current decibels of declamation, Orton’s wit will once again be savoured for the sparkling insight that it contains. JWR

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