Here’s a question for theater aficionados? Can you think of a play which deals with, features, or mentions all of the following: 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? Who could possibly have found a way to put all of the above into one play—and make it one of the most laugh-out-loud hilarious screwball farces ever?

The answer, for anyone who knows the mid-20th Century British theater scene, can only be What The Butler Saw, written by the infamous and inimitable Joe Orton.

Orton’s 1960s comedies, the most famous of which are Loot, Entertaining Mr. Sloan, and the aforementioned title, provoked shock, outrage, and even boos from many staid British playgoers of the time, but they also made them laugh, often uproariously so. Even today, over forty years after Orton’s untimely murder (by his longtime lover), his black comedies continue to induce both laughter and gasps, though far more the former than the latter, times having thankfully changed.

The latest revival of What The Butler Saw, now playing at Little Fish Theatre in San Pedro under the fast-and-furious direction of Melanie Jones, puts its audience right in the center of the mayhem and madness, making for a thoroughly entertaining evening of spicy black comedy.

What The Butler Saw features the following cast of zanies:

•Dr. Prentice (Rodney Rincon), 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 (Suzanne Dean), the good doctor’s promiscuous wife. “You were born with your legs apart,” the doctor tells her.  “They’ll send you to the grave in a Y-shaped coffin.”
•Geraldine Barclay (Rebecca Sigl), a fresh young thing sent by the Friendly Faces Employment Bureau to apply for the position of secretary at Dr. Prentice’s clinic. Geraldine can take shorthand at a remarkable 20 words a minute, but she hasn’t yet mastered the typewriter keyboard.
•Nicholas Beckett (Brandon Leyton), a pageboy at the Station Hotel who engages in sexual intercourse with hotel guests for the purposes of blackmail, most recently with one of the above.
•Dr. Rance (Mark A. Cross), a Government inspector whose visit to Dr. Prentice’s clinic convinces him that “We’ve phallic worship under our noses, or I’m a Dutchman.”
•Sergeant Match (Chris Aron), 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, crossed and uncrossed paths, mistaken identities, and last minutes surprise twists. In addition, 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 in their undies—and who can complain about that?

And how about these snippets for outrageously funny and infinitely quotable dialog?

Dr. Prentice:  Kindly remove your stockings. I wish to see what effect your stepmother’s death had upon your legs.

Mrs. Prentice: You put me in an impossible position.
Nick:  No position is impossible when you’re young and healthy.

Dr. Rance: Is your couch regulation size? It looks big enough for two.
Dr. Prentice:  I do double consultations.

Dr. Rance: What first aroused your suspicions?
Mrs. Prentice: His boorish attitude towards my mother.  He used to call her up on the telephone and suggest painful ways of committing suicide. Worn out at last by his pestering, she took his advice.

Nick:  I’ve a burning desire to sleep with every woman I meet.
Dr. Prentice:  That’s a filthy habit and, in my opinion, very injurious to your health.
Nick:  It is, sir. My health’s never been the same since I went off stamp collecting.

Can anyone think of a contemporary playwright who can shock, amuse, and titillate in equal measure? 

There isn’t a weak link in Little Fish’s cast, with particular praise due Rincon and Dean, masters at subtlety and comic timing, and Cross, who manages to make Dr. Rance seem the craziest of the bunch using nothing but his eyes. Under Jones’ direction, the action moves at a breakneck place, with plenty of perfectly timed entrances and exits and slamming of doors. Having the audience seated on three sides of scenic designer Deborah “Dove” Huntley’s psychiatric consulting room set makes it feel like sitting smack dab in the middle of the frantic action.  Garcio Brown’s costumes are well-chosen, though not particularly period specific.  Georgina Kester’s sound design and Alisha Herrick’s lighting are both fine indeed.

Though there are doubtless still some for whom Orton’s brand of comedy “crosses the line of decency,” I am not one of them, and in fact look forward to any chance to see one of his riotous comedies revived. Little Fish’s production fits that bill to a T.

Little Fish Theatre, 777 Centre St., San Pedro. 

–Steven Stanley
August 15, 2009

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