If you’re old enough to remember the old “Carry On” series of British movie farces of the 1960’s and 70’s (more than 30 plus films) and the more recent nuttiness of the Monty Python TV shows, then you’re going to love the current production now on the boards of the Mark Taper Forum.
“What the Butler Saw” written by English playwright and ‘infant terrible’ Joe Orton, is classic English farce performed with stiff upper lip by a cast of clueless characters that looked as if they just stepped out of a West End theatre production to find themselves on the stage of the Mark Taper Forum, bewildered as ever, but supremely confident in the correctness of their decisions.
Orton was a star-crossed performer/playwright that enjoyed brief success on the British stage before an early and tragic death took him at age 34. For three years in the early 1960’s he penned 10 plays of varying quality. “Entertaining Mr. Sloane” and “Loot”, two of his earlier efforts were popular but his most successful play was “What the Butler Saw”.
Directed by John Tillinger with flair and style, the improbable story revolves around Dr. Prentice, a London psychiatrist played by Charles Shaughnessy who runs a private medical clinic during the 1960’s. Prentice has a penchant for seducing his pretty female patients. As the play opens, Prentice is interviewing perky and cute Geraldine Barclay (Sarah Manton) who has applied for the position of the doctor’s secretary. During the interview, Prentice convinces Geraldine that it’s perfectly proper for him to conduct a complete medical examination as well the employment interview, and asks her to undress. Just as he begins the faux medical exam, his wife Mrs. Prentice enters the room and he hastily covers up his activity telling Geraldine to hide behind the medical curtain.
Mrs. Prentice (Frances Barber), however, has her own problems and is being blackmailed for her sexual indiscretion by Nicholas Beckett (Angus McEwan), and she offers the position of the clinic secretary to her husband, which ads further confusion, including Nicholas and Geraldine dressing as the opposite sex. Are you still with me to this point? Good. It’s a British farce, remember? But I digress.
Dr. Prentice’s clinic is then faced with a government inspection. The inspection is conducted by Doctor Rance (a delightfully clueless Paxton Whitehead), a product of the old boy, fuzzy-thinking network, who reveals that the chaos and odd situations going on in the clinic will make for interesting case-study entries in his new book “The final chapters are coming together very nicely” he says, “incest, buggery, outrageous women, and strange love cults catering to depraved appetites” rubbing his hands together in gleeful anticipation of publishing day.
In most British farces, the police constabulary is somehow always involved in the plot. It’s a staple of the genre becoming the comedy icing on top of the farce genre cake that’s offered to the audience. The convention allows one Sergeant Match (yes that’s his name) played with ferocious authenticity and commitment by Rod McLachlan to burst through the clinic’s door in search of suspects and clues to shenanigans going on at the clinic, whereby he immediately begins interrogating everyone in the room. The dialogue is delivered at warp speed, along with impeccably timed pauses by this splendid ensemble cast of farceurs. It’s the stuff and silliness that made the Monty Python comedy group famous.
One of the character traits I admire most in the English culture is their ability to laugh at themselves as a people. This manifests itself mainly in their comedies. Alas, we Americans on the other hand, never seem to understand parody, satire, or jokes about our country or our idiosyncrasies. Hey America, it’s really okay and even healthy to poke our collective fingers into our culture’s eyes from time to time.
The technical credits under the watchful eye of director Tillinger and his creative team: scenic designer James Noone, Costume designer Laurie Churba Kohn. Lighting designers Ken Billington and John McKernon, sound designer John Gromada are all first rate.
“What the Butler Saw” runs at the Mark Taper Forum through December 21, 2014.