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Tuesday, 26 April 2011 18:05

Perkier pacing would have made "Butler" better

Written by Mark Bretz
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The Details

In Joe Orton’s short but prolific career as a writer, the Englishman developed a reputation for incisive and biting humor that lampooned the Establishment in merry olde England. Before his abilities could fully blossom, Orton tragically was bludgeoned to death by his lover, another writer/actor named Kenneth Halliwell, in 1967 at the age of 34.

His too short life and career featured TV teleplays, screenplays and novels as well as plays such as Loot and Entertaining Mr. Sloane that still are performed today. His final play, a farce called What the Butler Saw, takes its title from an old-fashioned “mutoscope” reel, an early example of soft-core pornography that would depict a scene of a woman partially undressing as if “the butler” were watching her disrobe through a keyhole.

That naughtiness plays into Orton’s script for What the Butler Saw, which deals with sexual hijinks and sundry attempted rendezvous at a private psychiatric clinic in England in 1969 (when the play was first performed in London’s West End).

Dr. Prentice, a resident psychiatrist at the clinic, has convinced secretarial applicant Geraldine Barclay to undress as part of her “interview” with him. Before he can further advance the process, though, his oversexed wife arrives with news that a young bellhop, Nicholas Beckett, who seduced her is also attempting to blackmail her with revealing photos of Mrs. Barclay. So, naturally, she offers him the job of her husband’s secretary to placate him.

As the shenanigans intensify, with Beckett, Geraldine and Mrs. Prentice in various states of undress and assumed identities, a government inspector named Dr. Rance arrives to interrogate Prentice and uncover the gross mismanagement at the clinic, aided by an addle-brained bobby, Sgt. Match.

St. Louis Community College at Forest Park presented Orton’s wacky comedy from April 21 to 23 at the Mildred Bastian Center for the Performing Arts. With the very enticing lure of free admission, a good-sized audience attended the evening performance on April 23 and was treated to a delightful rendition of the goofy goings-on courtesy of director Suki Peters and her energized cast.

Tim Daly’s amusing scenic design suitably set the stage for these misadventures with some psychedelic wallpaper and a looming portrait of Sigmund Freud himself hung above a zebra-sheeted cot in Dr. Prentice’s office. Scenic artist Jason Coale and props designer Roger Erb added those zany touches to Daly’s set that added to the antics of the players

Liz Henning’s costumes highlighted the physical attributes of Nicole Angeli as the sexually voracious Mrs. Prentice and Macia Noorman as the befuddled secretarial applicant, along with some dandy Union Jack underwear for Sgt. Match. Magen King’s sound and Daly’s lights rounded out solid technical support.

What the Butler Saw actually is reminiscent of the madcap skits performed by Monty Python in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s in its outrageous buffoonery. In order for Orton’s witty and wacky humor to work best, though, expert timing is required.

While Peters had her engaging troupe frolicking merrily around the set, properly utilizing myriad doors for quick entrances and exits, better pacing would have enhanced the hilarity even more. As it was, it was fitfully funny, yet one could discern that quicker delivery of lines and faster movement would make the production even funnier.

Angeli is an adept comedienne and proved that again with a performance that underscored the broad potential of Orton’s script. She missed nary an opportunity to ogle or manhandle any object of her desire, maintaining a high threshold for the comic adventures. Noorman and Brennan Eller were amusing as the confused Miss Barclay and the agreeable bellhop, while Chuck Brinkley was consistently entertaining as the stiff-upper-lip constable, especially when some drugs turn him into a tipsy reveler himself.

Douglas Hettich had a grand time as the officious Dr. Rance, using his limber body to great advantage in various pratfalls that Orton used to lampoon the authorities of his day. John Foughty was most entertaining as the scheming psychiatrist, who lusts for sex while his randy wife is cavorting on the side at every opportunity. Foughty’s mismatches with a vase of flowers would have been worth the price of admission alone, even if tickets had actually cost money.

Seeing What the Butler Saw in such an entertaining presentation reminds one of what a considerable talent Orton was, and what an influence he had on British comedy for several generations.

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