The mad are running the madhouse in FSU/Asolo Conservatory for Actor Training's Dog Days Theatre take on the Joe Orton play.
Joe Orton’s “What the Butler Saw” premiered in March 5,1969 — a short time after the playwright’s murder. The '60s were in full swing at the time. But, judging by this play, Britain’s reputation for sexual liberation had been greatly exaggerated.
Orton’s farce details a guerilla war between the risqué and the respectable. Sex is still shocking in late '60s Britain — in both its “normal” varieties and kinky variations. According to the era’s prevailing Freudian dogma, sexual repression was the root of most mental illness. According to Orton, society’s morality police had the dirtiest (and craziest) minds of all.
Sexual politics aside, the play is a knockdown farce. Dr. Prentice (David Kortemeier), a randy shrink in charge of a psychiatric hospital, attempts to seduce Geraldine (Jillian Cicalese), his prospective secretary. By means of psychobabble, he tricks her into disrobing.
Then his nymphomaniac wife appears (Summer Dawn Wallace). The bad doctor quickly hides the secretary, and lamely tries to explain. Before he can, Dr. Rance (Ned Averill-Snell), a government hospital inspector also arrives, shortly followed by a blackmailing bellboy (Nolan Hennelly) and a dim policeman (Wes Tolman), who’s desperately seeking a missing part from a statue of Winston Churchill. Dr. Prentice tries to explain himself to everybody — and his tangled lies get him deeper in trouble. The madhouse becomes, well, a madhouse. Incidents of concealment, confusion, con-artistry and cross-dressing escalate. The weirder it gets, the better it gets for Dr. Rance. He plans to pack the asylum’s naughty misdeeds in a lurid, paperback bestseller and escape from his dead-end job in Her Majesty’s government.
The FSU/Asolo Conservatory for Actor Training’s 2006 production unfolded on a bone-white, antiseptic set. Steven Kemp’s 2018 set is shabby and not-so-genteel. David Covach’s costumes fluctuate between Savile Row and Carnaby Street. (The same paisley dress also fluctuates between two women and two men.)
Greg Leaming directs Orton’s farce with a dead-serious approach. The characters in the play don’t know how absurd they are — and that’s exactly how he plays it.
The actors do a sidesplitting job bringing these absurd characters to life. Kortemeier’s Dr. Prentice is a genial rotter with a bland sense of sexual entitlement; As his sexually frustrated wife, the deadpan Wallace gets more than her share of good lines and laughs. Snell’s Dr. Rance is hilarious as an ambitious fanatic combining zeal and hypocrisy in equal measure. Tolman plays the bobby as the plodding, clueless stock character he’s meant to be. Hennelly’s bellboy is a bad egg who’s suddenly outclassed in badness. Although she’s offstage or hiding behind a curtain much of the time, Cicalese’s Geraldine is the spinning eye of the storm. Like Alice descending down the rabbit hole, her perfectly sane character falls into a perfectly mad world. She’s the normal one amid the chaos around her, and that marks her as a suitable case for psychiatric treatment.
Along with the typical slamming doors, the farce slams doors in your mind. The crazy talk abounds with paradox and paranoia …
“Just when one least expects it, the unexpected happens.”
“You can’t be a rationalist in an irrational world. It isn’t rational.”
“A husband must be allowed to put his wife into a straight-jacket. It’s one of the few pleasures left in modern marriage.”
Orton peppers the dialogue with such epigrammatic hand grenades. Oscar Wilde is his obvious inspiration, but he owes a side debt to Joseph Heller’s “Catch 22.” There’s an inversion and subversion of logical and moral order, a sense of a world turned upside-down. In this case, the world of “respectable” British society.
For Orton, sexual repression is the ultimate perversion. Dr. Rance sniffs out deviation with the zeal of a truffle hound. His hunt for lust creates lust — and turns the asylum into a simmering sexual pressure cooker. Put a lid on the Id (Freud's concept of the animalistic primitive self, that is) and you risk an explosion. If the play had a message, that would be it. But Orton wasn’t that kind of playwright.
He had every reason to take sexual repression personally. Orton was gay; Great Britain didn’t fully decriminalize homosexuality until 2003.
Instead of blatant editorializing, he skewers this issue with the death of a thousand cuts. The result is a razor-sharp, cheeky, funny farce stuffed with dirty jokes. After nearly 50 years, Orton’s play still gets belly laughs.
That’s the kind of playwright he was.