When Joe Orton’s farce What the Butler Saw premiered in 1969 (not long after the playwright’s untimely death), it probably seemed pretty risqué to audiences, even though it was the swinging ’60s. With its sexual content—references to incest, cross dressing, and all kinds of forbidden hanky-panky—and its sharp jabs at government institutions and societal hypocrisy, it may have induced a few gasps along with its laughs.
Nearly 50 years later, Orton’s comedy has proved a popular one over and over—no longer shock-inducing, but beloved in the manner of Monty Python or Orton’s progenitor, Oscar Wilde. But audiences will still be laughing during the Dog Days Theatre production of the show now onstage at the Cook Theatre.
As a farce, Butler includes the expected door slamming, ever-escalating desperate attempts to prevent inconvenient truths from coming out, and a lot of running about in partial undress by its cast. But it’s about more than a lecherous psychiatrist named Dr. Prentice (David Kortemeier) attempting to seduce his would-be secretary (Jillian Cicalese), who’s very nearly discovered by his wife (Summer Dawn Wallace), who, naturally, has been having some sexual escapades of her own with a hotel bellboy (Nolan Hennelly). In classic “the lunatics are running the asylum” style, Orton also introduces us to Dr. Rance (Ned Averill-Snell), a government inspector who’s determined to spot insanity everywhere, without bothering with the technicalities of any kind of exam. His misplaced authority runs amok beyond any usual sex farce.
“We practice democratic lunacy,” is one of Rance’s telling comments, as he continually ups the ante on just how many of the play’s characters (which also include a police bobby, played by Wes Tolman, who’s searching for the missing parts of an exploded statue of Winston Churchill) need to be in a straitjacket. Of course, that list should include Rance.
Under the direction of FSU/Asolo Conservatory and Dog Days artistic leader Greg Leaming, What the Butler Saw proceeds in fine, frantic fashion. Conservatory grads Hennelly and Tolman and second-year student Cicalese do good work here, but you’ve especially got to hand it to the “older” pros for keeping the action convincing and sharp. Kortemeier brings a dogged defensiveness to his role as he keeps protesting his innocence (all while perpetually demanding that someone or other take off his or her clothes); Averill-Snell makes the journey from initial pompous officialdom to overheated case study hunter with relish; and Wallace strides from scene to scene, in her heels and often-changing attire, with ire, determination and several plausible screams of shock at each fresh new outrage she confronts.
What the Butler Saw provides some fast-paced, anarchic fun for summer audiences, and that’s a welcome thing. The show continues through July 29; for tickets call 351-8000 or visit asolorep.org.