Wednesday, August 1, 2012
Theater review part deux: What the Butler Saw at Stage West Theatre in Fort Worth
This sort of comedy needs an almost other-worldly giddiness.
Joe Orton was an out and proud gay playwright and one of England’s best authors of contemporary theatre. What the Butler Saw (presented by Stage West at Stage West Theatre in Fort Worth through August 5) was his last play, staged in 1969 shortly before his untimely death at the hands of his partner, Kenneth Halliwell. What the Butler Saw is a dry sex farce with political underpinnings, and a fair amount of quippy influence by Oscar Wilde. It plays like a bawdy, extended vaudeville sketch, while mocking the class system and hypocrisy of bourgeois heterosexuality. The most horrendous depravity (rape, incest, human sacrifice) is discussed in erudite and lofty terms (the comedy takes place in a psychiatric clinic) with little regard for the impact actions have in the actual world. Of course, Butler is not the actual world, it’s satire.
Like Christopher Durang’s Titanic, Richard O’Brien’s The Rocky Horror Show (and a great deal of erotica in general), Butler comes from a place of polymorphous perversity, a state of heightened arousal where just about anything has the potential for sexual gratification. Dr. Rance, a high ranking authority figure in the field of Psychiatric Medicine, might be contrasted with Nicholas Beckett, a bellhop/rent boy at a tony hotel. While Rance sees sexual degeneracy behind every transgression, Beckett is fluent enough to take monetary advantage whenever the opportunity arises, from men or women. Labels are of no use to him, as long as he’s in his comfort zone and earning. It’s worth noting that while none of the characters identify as gay, same gender behavior is only rejected when perceived as a challenge to the status quo. Rance is a metaphor for the more powerful, educated, privileged class (he references Freud repeatedly) and while he’s clearly deranged, the more he babbles, the more seriously he’s taken. We get the impression that if he talked to anyone for 15 minutes, he’d wind up having them committed.
Butler is certainly awash with tantalizing, subversive behavior. And understated expressions of dissatisfaction, dysfunction, and animosity. Dr. Prentice, the protagonist (if you will) nonchalantly explains that he married his wife for money, then strangled her after learning that she had none. After that, apparently, relations became strained. As for acting out, rarely does one see a plot with more excuses to undress and cross-dress with so little “misbehavior,” and some fairly fetching eye-candy along the way. I’m not sure if it’s a symptom of art or culture that the best dramatic explorations of sex (while explicit) are so thoroughly demoralizing and the best sex comedies flirt with blue content while really showing us very little. Butler tickles us with great shenanigans that, at their core, are innocuous, while it’s the Great Paternal Paradigm of Rectitude who seems obsessed with the dirty.
Kudos to Stage West for taking on What the Butler Saw, Orton’s sociopolitical send-up of normalcy and the mandate of procreative coupling. I’m not sure they hit the exact chemistry necessary for such ambitious, layered, grotesque material: the wife terrified when her husband won’t stop offering flowers, the drugged policeman in dress, insisting on a physical examination, the specter of Winston Churchill’s phallic cigar. This sort of comedy needs an almost other-worldly giddiness and aplomb that nearly approaches that mythological lightning-in-a-bottle phenomenon. This production is quite satisfying and amusing, and the cast, et al, deserves considerable recognition for their diligence in this demanding piece.
Pegasus News Content partner - Christopher Soden, Dallas GLBT Arts Examiner
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