If a play is set in a psychiatric ward, it's a good bet that one of its themes will be the issue of how sanity is defined.
If the play is Joe Orton's farce What the Butler Saw, set in a psychiatrist's clinic in jolly old uptight England, have no doubt that there will be an outrageous, full-throttle, wickedly funny assault on the culturally sanctioned ideas of marriage, sexuality, psychiatry, government, religion, law enforcement and just about every other institution you can name. You can also be assured that this assault will be crafted with wit, delicious language, intelligence and an unwavering embrace of the absurd.
Live Theatre Workshop has mounted a solidly entertaining interpretation of Orton's profound lunacy. Under Sabian Trout's direction, the six cast members offer themselves wholeheartedly to whatever is asked of their characters, no matter how bizarre.
The story begins as psychiatrist Dr. Prentice (Keith Wick) is interviewing a young woman for a secretarial position. When he suggests that the interview involves removing her clothes for an examination, Geraldine (Holli Henderson) hesitates but reluctantly complies. Prentice's wife (Jodi Ajanovic) then shows up unexpectedly, complaining that she has been taken advantage of by a bellhop at the Station Hotel. Dr. Prentice is uninterested; his attention is focused on hiding the unclothed job applicant. A government inspector (Michael F. Woodson) makes an unannounced visit, determined to expose any irregularities in the clinic and its personnel. Of course, he is the epitome of psychological irregularities, and when the bellboy (Gary McGaha) arrives, followed by a police sergeant (Eric Anson), the ingredients for madness are assembled. Lasciviousness, unfettered sexual desire (both heterosexual and homosexual), near nakedness, inappropriately administered sedatives, mistaken identities and cross-dressing all have their moments as the tangled action whirls like a tornado wrecking all good taste in its path.
The show was first produced in London in 1969. English playwright Orton never saw his work performed. In 1967, Orton's lover and artistic partner, Kenneth Halliwell, driven by jealousy, smashed 34-year-old Orton's head in with a hammer and then took his own life by overdosing.
In 1969, this play rocked the theater world. Its no-holds-barred challenge of taboos was both a reflection of and an artistic contribution to the era's cultural revolution. Forty years down the road, the play doesn't threaten or even shock us. We—well, most of us—have moved on. No longer is the play received—or offered—as a scalding satire of social mores or a rattling of the cages of sacred cows.
What's left, however, is a very funny play with a collection of weird characters romping about in a mad comic caper. In LTW's production, the actors luxuriate in Orton's wonderful language and subject themselves to the challenging rigors of fast-paced farce with laudable success.
Wick's Dr. Prentice is way beyond quirky, with a hairdo that nails his smarmy character. Although his Prentice is mostly grounded in credible (and certifiable) wackiness, there are moments when Wick's chosen mannerisms distract from his characterization. Still, his is a skilled and very funny embodiment of the sex-crazed master of the clinic.
Henderson is irresistible as Geraldine, the hapless job applicant. We feel for her as she struggles to escape the most ridiculous and confusing job interview ever. Her attempts to combat unwarranted sedation are a joy.
Ajanovic, as Prentice's wife, contributes comically, but her characterization is inconsistent—at times grounded in authenticity, and at others overreaching. McGaha's Nicholas the bellboy is rather stilted, but that quality ends up working well for him as he strips to his skivvies and dons a dress. How anyone could mistake this obviously uncomfortable hunk of a guy for a woman speaks to the level of cuckoo in this odd place.
As Dr. Rance, the government inspector, Woodson provides plenty of laughs. Rance busily dithers in a world of his own, making hasty, misguided judgments and scheming to capitalize on the present goings-on to boost his writing career. However, Woodson seems at times like he is being driven by the need to execute his copious nattering lines rather than by his character.
Anson rounds out the cast as the police sergeant. He admirably fulfills his role, which pretty much consists of being yet another candidate to strip and to register the comic effects of too many pills.
There is one disturbing thing about this production: The ending that Orton wrote has been tampered with. I'm rather baffled, and I don't think I'm comfortable with the change. It's not uncommon for directors to stray a bit from a script, but the changes usually don't mess with the meaning the playwright intended—and the ending Orton wrote leaves a different impression from the one we see. Although it has been underplayed, the subject in question has been there from the beginning; it's even the reason for the sergeant's presence. The ending we see works fine, but it's not Orton's.
Nonetheless, What the Butler Saw will make your head spin, engage your funny bone endlessly, and have you gasping for air as the story's frantic antics swell to the outrageous climax. It's wicked, naughty fun.
In my review of Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw, being presented by Live Theatre Workshop, I expressed my disturbance at seeing a very different ending than the one I read in Orton's script. Sabian Trout, who directed the show, left a message for me expressing her disturbance, because they had done "word for word" the ending dictated by their contract with Samuel French, the group which handles arrangements between playwrights and theaters.
So I grabbed the script I had read, in Joe Orton: The Complete Plays. There was the ending I remembered.
What's up with that? Orton died two years before the play was even produced. How could he have changed his ending?
Turns out the version I had read was Orton's original script. So, indeed, the Samuel French version, which LTW diligently reproduced, is different from Orton’s original. Apparently, the Samuel French version is the version sanctioned by Orton’s estate.
Actually, this disturbs me even more, because this official version sanitizes Orton's kick-ass ending. The ending he wrote underscores his send-up of the institutions and cultural mores that have done such a remarkable job of totally screwing us up.
Live Theatre Workshop absolutely played by the rules in reproducing the ending called for in the official performance version. And that ending works well enough in their very entertaining production.
Still, it's not really Orton's.