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BWW Reviews: Mark Taper Forum's WHAT THE BUTLER SAW

What the Butler Saw/by Joe Orton/directed by John Tillinger/Mark Taper Forum/through December 21

Joe Orton's insanely insane world in 1960s England is no better displayed than in his third and final play What the Butler Saw now onstage at the Mark Taper Forum through December 21. A terrifically energized cast are on hand as is seasoned director John Tillinger, but things got off to a somewhat slow start opening night and really did not start to cook until Act II. It might be the width and depth of the Taper stage, which is not easy to cross that rapidly. I saw a production a couple of years back at the Odyssey, and the space being half the size, entrances and exits were quicker, as was the tempo of the whole play.

Orton's way is rigorously raunchy whether satirizing sex, religion or politics. Like his other riotously funny plays Entertaining Mr. Sloane and Loot, What the Butler Saw, as a true farce should do, has one-liners that top each other one after the other and keeps moving at lightning speed with more exits and entrances than one can count.... which barely allows a moment or two for the actors to come up for air. Mistaken identities - girl dresses as boy and boy dresses as girl - would of course be natural in the mind of Joe Orton who lived a vigorously homosexual life. He did it all ... ended up paying unfairly for his sins, but despite the consistent censorship abroad, the plays in modern time are more popular than ever. All audiences love them, gay or straight, young or old! I overheard one woman say at intermission "The pacing is too slow; it's a bore, but I'm wondering if I should stay as I heard there's a nude chase scene in the second act", and she is quite a few years my senior. There's one silly joke/embarrassing situation after another in Butler - yes, including a man running naked across the stage at least twice, and what is indeed remarkable is that the Orton insight into what makes a marriage work effectively or any organized chaos, for that matter, is so on target. The old motto "It never hurts to add a little spice to a relationship to shake things up" has more than gotten out of control in today's day and age.

The one question most raised is "Why is the title What the Butler Saw, when the play takes place in an asylum and there is not one servant to be found?" We are the butlers, if you will, peeping through the keyhole to witness all the foul deeds perpetrated by our leaders onstage. It's as if the lower middle class were privy to all the dark secrets of their masters, relish all their splendid naughtiness and can't wait to share them with everyone else. There are some daft references to the remains - parts - of Sir Winston Churchill, and when one is uncovered at play's end, it's his penis, or is it? Bawdy Joe Orton! No one or nothing is spared, and we are left at the end with complete utter anarchy where incest runs rampant.

The ensemble are quite good, especially Frances Barber as Mrs. Prentice. She is hilarious from start to finish with some delicious mugging and fast and furious pratfalls. Charles Shaughnessy is effective as the philandering Dr. Prentice, but could do a lot more to express his frustrations. Paxton Whitehead may be a little slower due to age, but he's still got it. We hung on to every line. He could read the phone book and get laughs. Rod McLachlan is a scream as the policeman, and Sarah Manton as Geraldine Barclay and Angus McEwan as the bellboy add steam and color to the proceedings. James Noone's set of the clinic is appropriate enough.

This may not be the best Butler I have seen, but with Joe Orton's keen dialogue and the actors' sturdy efforts to keep up the pace, it is still one helluva a laugh-filled entertainment. Time has killed some of the humor, though, as cable TV with its crude, raucous manner of portraying sex and violence - where nothing is left to the imagination - has certainly lived up to Joe Orton's visions. He was surely ahead of his time.

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