Theatre Mirror Reviews - "What The Butler Saw"

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note: entire contents copyright 2000 By Alan W. Petrucelli


Go See What This Butler --- and Reviewer --- Saw

By Alan W. Petrucelli

Prick up your ears and listen closely.

"What the Butler Saw" is like nothing you've ever seen ... unless of course, you've seen the works of English playwright Joe Orton produced --- and produced as well as this one, now at the Academy Playhouse in Orleans --- before. Like Oscar Wilde, Orton was a satirist who dramatized the hypocrisy and perversity of contemporary society. He poked fun at government, religion, art, heterosexuality and homosexuality; so in demand was Orton that before he was murdered by his male lover in 1967, even the Beatles longed after him, asking him to write them a screenplay. (Imagine what might have been!)

In "What the Butler Saw," Orton takes on --- and attacks and lampoons and spoofs and stings --- just about every more of the British establishment. And he does it so well, with language rich in innuendo and uninhabited action. (A side note: Though the play is not obscene, it reeks with topics one would have to call "adult situations" --- rape, incest, transvestitism --- making the show, at least in the Playhouse advertising campaign "not recommended for younger audiences." On opening night, arriving theatergoers were greeted by protesters carrying placards with quotes such as "The filthiest show I've ever seen" --- a claim, by the way, that simply proves the poor gent has never watched much television.)

"What the Butler Saw" is most certainly a black comedy, a sex farce with a sharp, savage sting. Unfortunately, my own personal code of ethics (as well as the threat of my editor's big blue pencil) prohibit me from quoting any of the Hysterical lines. So, I offer a hysterical line, the most benign of the bunch, delivered by a man whose wife is a nymphomaniac: "They'll send you to your grave in a Y-shaped coffin."

It could be argued that Orton's works are dated; after all TV talk show now tackle the same topics, often with as much, if not more, shock value. Take away this fact, and you're left with farce that still slapsticks, and stand alone. (Think Orton's take on Ionesco's take on Wilde "The Importance of Being Earnest" and you're getting close.)

The plot of "What the Butler Saw" --- and we should use the word "plot" quite loosely --- takes place mostly during the state inspection of an upscale mental institution ... a mental institution in which clothes are often taken off and lost souls are often found to be sane. It is a house where "beliefs in what is normal is abnormal;" or as one character mutters to another; "You are in a madhouse in which unusual behavior is the order of the day."

Dr. Prentice, a psychiatrist and owner of the sanitarium is interviewing a job applicant named Geraldine. She wants a job, he wants her naked. He convinces her to disrobe, and just as he stuffs her unmentionables in a drawer, his wife scurries in. Dr. Prentice tries distracting the Mrs. from finding the naked woman behind the curtain ... at the same time, the Mrs. tries hiding her black bellboy lover --- who, by the way is blackmailing her with the pornographic photos he has taken --- from her husband.

Enter the state inspector who decides the naked girl hiding behind the curtain is actually crazy. He shaves her head, admits her as a patient and orders electroshock therapy. Then the police arrive, looking for the bellboy who has been accused of consorting with some schoolgirls ... so he dons the dress (and identity) of the near-bald Geraldine.

And that's just in the first half hour, with the indictment of the abuses of power by people corrupt and hypocritical never further away than a laugh. The cast, under the strong directional hand of Stephen Russell, manages to find (and maintain) the play's rhythm, with nary a snag.

The set is as much as co-star, with doors flying open and close; the music, '60s relics such as "Georgey Girl} and "The Look of Love" add a delightful tough. And pay attention to the balloons decorating the chandelier. I'd go further, but that blue pencil is lurking nearby. Instead, go see "What the Butler Saw" ... it's like looking through a peephole of a most riotous room.

"What the Butler Saw" will be presented Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights at 8 p.m., and Sunday afternoons at 2 p.m., through April 8. Tickets: $14, $12. For reservations, call (508) 255-1963.


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