Ranking right up there with Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” as ‘possibly the funniest play ever written’ to some, Joe Orton’s “What the Butler Saw” earned cries of “filth!” from members of the audience at its initial run at The Queen’s Theatre in London in 1969. In its press release, Stage West describes the British farce thus: “Nothing is sacred, not the government, not the mental health industry, not conventional mores, not even Winston Churchill.” Playing through August 5 at the premium Fort Worth venue, the production struggles mightily to maintain hyper Benny Hill-style madcap mayhem while bridging the cultural sensibility gap across the Atlantic and competing with the depth and diversity of risqué stage performance since 1969. It seems quaint rather than shocking to today’s audience.
Opening night at Stage West felt a bit “undercooked”: lines garbled and dropped, pacing dragged on occasion. Still, glimmers shone through of outrageous irreverence that made the play a first-rate sex farce for its era. The discovery near Act II’s conclusion of a missing part of a statue of Sir Winston Churchill must have sent some upper crust types straight to the loony bin in 1969, foaming at the mouth and soiling themselves. Stage West’s creative kahunas take pride in producing British farce, some times with more success than others. It’s all about risk, style and comic timing; at Stage West a never-ending supply of all three flourishes.
Directed by Stage West’s Jim Covault, Stage West newcomers carry the show. Patrick Bynane as the lecherous Dr. Prentice, the show’s “straight man”, conveys an unruffled, if deluded, sense of calm control throughout, providing solid foil material for the show’s comic characters to wreak havoc against. As the unsuspecting innocent, Katherine Bourne gives a sweetly seductive performance worthy of early Lucille Ball, demonstrating a palpable instinct for superior comic timing. Garret Storms, in his second Stage West appearance (Spinoza in “New Jerusalem”), plays one scintillatingly naughty bellboy with bawdy blackmail under his cap. His posturing in drag evokes a Monty Python-esque air that will only grow funnier with each performance. Fighting occasionally with more complex text than anyone else on stage, the ever-entertaining Jerry Russell gives a dependably insane comic turn as the elderly Dr. Rance. Surely he’s found his verbal stride after several performances. Dana Schultes as predatory, dipsomaniac Mrs. Prentice looks the part splendidly (costumes by Michael Robinson) but yells her lines as if trying to communicate with a deaf person without a hearing aid. Stage West regular Dwight Greene portrays the hapless Sgt. Match, as peculiarly funereal in drag as he is ghostly deadpan as a cop.
For someone who wrote unbridled farce, Joe Orton led an odd, tragic life, with a macabre demise. His success as a playwright arrived only after he served a jail term for defacing library books. In his diary he comments, “I tried writing before I went into the nick…but it was no good. Being in the nick brought detachment to my writing…suddenly it worked.” Ultimately, the joke was on him. Shortly after the completion of “What the Butler Saw” in 1967, Orton’s longtime lover murdered him in a jealous rage, beating him to death with a hammer. He never got to enjoy his silly play’s success. Maybe it’s the curse of Oscar Wilde?
“What the Butler Saw”, with nary a butler in sight, runs through August 5 at Stage West, where sexy farce always makes for great fun. Reservations are available through the Box Office (817-784-9378), or at www.stagewest.org. Dine ahead at their Old Vic Café.
Photos by Buddy Myers.
As run in abbreviated fashion on TheaterJones.com