What the Butler Saw

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By Philip Pearce

Jewel Theatre Company in Santa Cruz is offering a slick and energetic version of a raucous farce written by Joe Orton, enfant terrible of British theater of the 1960s, and called What the Butler Saw.

It’s a title most Brits of a certain age would recognize instantly as the kind of boardwalk come-on that used to be attached to coin-in-the-slot peep show machines at seaside resorts like Filey and Blackpool. Drop in your shilling and you can watch 90 seconds worth of red-faced gents in boxer shorts caught in compromising situations with busty ladies wearing bras and garter belts.

Hardly high culture, but it reflects one of two long established, contrasting traditions of British farce. On the one hand, there are those aristocratic battles of wit with Wilde and Coward characters all crumpets and cocktails and classy social correctness. And there’s all that other unsubtle shorts and garter naughtiness in lower class material like No Sex Please, We’re British.

One of the remarkable things about Orton’s play is that it combines both of those seemingly irreconcilable farce traditions in one down and dirty romp. Of its six characters, four are required repeatedly to strip down to their underwear and, some more than once, to re-dress in the distinctive garb of another character. All but one gets loudly and falsely accused of sexual excesses ranging from transvestitism to incest. The central setting changes from a tidy psychiatric consulting room with an unusual number of doors to a madhouse of gun-toting, obsessive loonies. But, unlike your typical raunchy British farceurs this sextet (you should excuse the expression) accompany their antics with hi-falutin’ dialogue that sounds like Coward and Wilde on steroids. It’s as if Amanda and Elliott, Gwendoline and Lady Bracknell found themselves caught up in a blackout skit at Minsky’s Burlesque.

Orton’s plot explodes into action when classy psychiatrist Dr Prentice, played with feverish intensity by Mike Ryan, gives in to an urge and asks a toothsome secretarial applicant to take off her clothes and lie down on a couch in a curtained alcove. His efforts to cover this ill-advised decision snowball into combinations and permutations of racily suggestive catastrophe I won’t even try to explain or describe.

As the ill-fated would-be secretary Geraldine Barclay, Audrey Rumsby moves brilliantly from assured stiletto-heeled dolly-girl to desperate psych patient hiding her nakedness and watching through the alcove curtains as her clothing disappears on the back of Prentice’s confused, door-slamming spouse, played fast and funny by Jewel Artistic Director Julie James. The hapless Geraldine can then only cover her nudity by donning the uniform and identify of a local hotel bellboy.

The actual bellboy Nicolas, played with libidinous athleticism by Josh Saleh, is the busiest of all the evening’s quick change artists. Forced to abandon his uniform via jockey shorts for full drag, he then has an almost Full Monty moment covered only by a strategically placed policeman’s helmet, which points to his next plot-driven costume change.

The helmet belongs to nice, accommodating Police Sergeant Match who arrives to bring a bit of calm British rationality to the beleaguered clinic in the capable person of Robert Sicular. He ends up, for reasons too complicated to explain, a crazed drug-induced lunatic dressed, you guessed it, in his underwear.

The one character who retains both his clothing and his self assurance throughout is Prentice’s vinegary colleague Rance (the hilarious, viper-tongued Danny Schele). Others may shriek, strip, and slam doors, but Rance remains an icy control freak who ringmasters the whole show by mis-diagnosing everyone else in the cast with a succession of sordid sexual deviations he plans to use in a forthcoming lurid best seller.
Jewel does the complicated script full justice. Director Art Manke has trained a team that operates with the precision of machine parts. Doors slam and costumes change flawlessly, the high energy never flags and the accents are briskly and convincingly transatlantic. Hearing impaired as I am, I caught almost every syllable from my seat halfway up the central aisle, though the epigrams came so fast and furious there was little chance to pause and assess their aptness or wisdom.

If all of this sounds like a breezy and jolly evening, think again. Orton’s aim in life as in his brief meteoric body of written work was to provoke, pillory and shock. He never saw What the Butler Saw in full professional production. It opened two years after his murder at the hands of an ex live-in lover, who then took his own life. Brilliant but bitter, the finely crafted twists and squirms of What the Butler Saw are adroit but not what you could call endearing. Even the conventionally sentimental and mock patriotic ending is a dark and sardonic spoof. Forty something years on, What the Butler Saw is undeniably funny but it still leaves a faintly ugly taste in the mouth.

It continues weekends at Center Stage, 1001 Center Street, Santa Cruz, through May 25th.

Photo by Steve Barto