“Doctor, help me! I keep seeing naked men!”
“From now on, we shall never have sex except in a linen cupboard.”   
   (Two of my favorite lines from What The Butler Saw.)

Imagine a play which deals with and/or features (in alphabetical order)
depravity, disguises, gender identity, the government, hanky-panky,
hermaphroditism, homosexuality, incest, insanity, marriage, mistaken identities,
nymphomania, pederasty, psychiatry, rape, religion, reunited orphan siblings,
slapstick, and transvestitism. Imagine this play being one of most laugh-out-
loud outrageous and uproarious farces ever.  Now imagine this farce having
been written by a gay Englishman at a time when homo-sex was still a criminal
offense in his native land.  No wonder London audiences booed Joe Orton’s
What The Butler Saw when it was first staged there in 1969, 2 years after the
playwright’s death.

Orton’s final play remains as outrageous and over-the-top in 2008 as it was 40
years ago, but (thankfully) society has changed and so too has the reaction to
What The Butler Saw. What once provoked boos now elicits audience
guffaws, cheers, and critical acclaim as Sacred Fool’s current revival so richly

For once there will be no play synopsis here, for two reasons. First, because to
even begin to describe the intricacies of Orton’s plot would simply take up too
much space.  Secondly, because half the fun of What The Butler Saw is in the
element of surprise. (For those interested in a synopsis, however, there is a
detailed one which Chicago’s Court Theater has graciously posted online. 
Click here for a preview of the mayhem and madness of What The Butler Saw
or, if you’ve already seen the Sacred Fools’ production, to test yourself on how
much you remember.)

Suffice it to say that the cast of characters is as follows:

•        Dr. Prentice, head of a Mental Health Clinic whose purpose “isn’t to cure,
but to liberate and exploit madness,” and who, by the play’s end, has been
accused of being “a transvestite, fetishist, bisexual murderer.”
•        Mrs. Prentice, the good doctor’s wife. “You were born with your legs
apart,” the doctor tells her.  “They’ll send you to the grave in a Y-shaped
•        Geraldine Barclay, from the Friendly Faces Employment Bureau, applying
for the position of secretary at Dr. Prentice’s clinic, who can take shorthand at
a remarkable 20 words a minute, though she hasn’t yet mastered the
typewriter keyboard
•        Nicholas Beckett, a pageboy at the Station Hotel who engages in sexual
intercourse with hotel guests for the purposes of blackmail
•        Dr. Rance, a Government inspector whose visit to Dr. Prentice’s clinic
convinces him that “We’ve phallic worship under our noses, or I’m a
•        Sergeant Match, a policeman baffled by all of the above

Like any screwball farce worth its money, What The Butler Saw features fast-
paced dialog, countless entrances, exits, and crossed and uncrossed paths,
mistaken identities, and last minutes surprise twists. Sacred Fools’ crackerjack
production also features brief flashes of nudity (one pair of breasts and one
penis).  Since the play was written by a man of the homosexual persuasion, gay
audience members (and women) get the longer stick (no pun intended).
Cheesecake is fleeting, whereas the pageboy and the bobby appear in their
undies for extended periods of time, one of them in jockey shorts and the other
wearing naught but a jock strap. By the end of the production, most of the
cast has either cross-dressed, worn someone else’s clothes and/or a
straitjacket, or appeared naked.   

One of the best reasons to see a Joe Orton play is his droll, quotable dialog, sort
of what a bawdier, more contemporary Oscar Wilde might have written. Here
are just a handful of examples:

–He attempted to rape me.
–Did he succeed?
–Oh, the service in these hotels is dreadful.

–He might go insane.
–This is a mental home. He couldn’t pick a better place.

–Lunatics are melodramatic. The subtleties of life are wasted on them.

–You can’t take lovers in Asia! The air fare would be crippling.

–Is it policemen or young boys you’re after? At your age, it’s high time you
came to a decision.

Director Kiff Scholl (assisted by Amada D’Angelo) knows that to have a
successful farce, the staging must be fast and furious, and that the cast he
assembles must have flair, razor-sharp timing, and be totally committed to the
author’s intentions. Scholl’s staging is indeed fast and furious, and although
one or two of the cast members seem still slightly unsure of their lines, the show
is filled with memorably over-the-top performances.

In fact, in Tera Struck’s 60s costumes and Joel Scher and Kelsey Wedeen’s wigs,
many of the characters get laughs just coming onstage, among them
Wedeen herself, as Geraldine, with her permanent wide-eyed slightly blank
stare, an adorable way of flicking back her very long, very blonde hair whilst
removing her stockings, and a touch of Audrey Hepburn in her voice.  As Mrs.
Prentice, the award-winning Carolyn Hennesy sports a black beehive a foot
high, 60s black eyeliner, and a dry, sophisticated delivery that makes even
throwaway lines funny. Carl J. Johnson’s Dr. Prentice comes across so sincere of
heart that he manages to make the good doctor’s lechery seem harmless,
and shows a gift for physical comedy in a scene in which he must frantically
hide Geraldine’s shoes.  Peter Altschuler portrays Dr. Rance with a face of
constant disapproval, and the ability to give a instantaneous and detailed
diagnosis completely un-based in fact, like a medical Sherlock Holmes who gets
everything completely wrong. Joe Hendrix’s innocent expression hides quite
the scheming Nicholas, and he is very funny as when Orton’s script dresses him
in full drag, hairy legs and all.  David Gueriera, as the daffy Sergeant Match, is
a fine comic and especially good sport in a hilarious sequence requiring him to
do physical comedy with drug stiffened limbs, wearing only the previously
mentioned jock strap.

Dan Mailley and Christopher Goodson’s excellent pink and green toned set
looks like a bit of Miami transported to England.  Brandon Clark’s props,  and
John Sylvain’s lighting, and Mark McLain Wilson’s sound design are likewise first

After their hugely successful production of Drood: The Mystery of Edwin Drood,
this terrific revival of Joe Orton’s most controversial, risqué, and deliciously
shocking farce means that the theater is on a British roll, and theatergoers not
easily shocked will likely be spreading the word about What The Butler Saw for
weeks to come.

Sacred Fools Theater Company, 660 N. Heliotrope, Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
January 31, 2008
Photo: Haven Hartman

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