Spoiler alert: The first thing you need to know about What the Butler Saw is that there is no butler among the characters.
Or rather, consider the possibility that you might be the butler: The title is an Edwardian reference to voyeurism through tiny lenses and secret keyholes, and the audience is treated to one erotic peepshow, indeed.
Set in an upscale mental clinic in 1960s Britain, What the Butler Saw opens with the lascivious but bumbling Dr. Prentice (played with aplomb by Connect’s own Bill DeYoung) trying to convince cute secretarial candidate Miss Geraldine Barclay (featuring Alexis Mundy’s perfect Cockney accent) that taking her clothes off is a perfectly acceptable part of the interview process. But the doctor’s nymphomaniacal wife (Lynne Jones as the quintessential horny cougar in a leopard coat) wants the job to go to her handsome young Lothario, Nick (the apple–cheeked Zach Blaylock.)
The arrogant government stooge Dr. Rance (Charlie Ribbens exuding a glorious pomposity) appears on the scene, misinterpreting every aspect of the situation as he attempts to gather research for a book. Calm is not restored by the investigation of Sergeant Match (Eric Salles as a right smart bobby) who delivers one of the script’s most chortle–worthy lines: “Marriage excuses no one from the freaks’ roll call!”
Clothes are removed and exchanged, identities are mismatched, hilarity ensues. And parts of Winston Churchill appear in there somewhere. The dialogue is wicked fast, and keeping track of who’s shtupping who is part of the fun.
“I wanted to do something summery and light for our first show of the season,” says Collective Face director David I.L. Poole. “And this sexy, adult British comedy fit.”
Savannah’s theater ensemble delves into several dramas on its docket for the rest of the year, including Tennesee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer in October. But Poole has found that pathos doesn’t challenge actors as much as delivering punchlines at a lickety–split pace.
“There’s the misconception that comedy is easy, but it’s far more difficult than drama,” he clarifies. “The timing has to be exact.”
The last work written by British playwright Joe Orton, What the Butler Saw was first performed posthumously in 1969, two years after Orton was murdered. Butler is lauded as his best play, a farce in the vein of Oscar Wilde and 17th-century French satirist Molière, who snuck in serious social criticism in between the lines of their comical romances.
The partial nudity and bawdy sexual references that were so outrageous back then might not shock the Jersey Shore–numbed psyches of modern audiences, but there is plenty of relevance to mine out of Orton’s cultural critique:
Blurring the lines between straight and gay still titillates most folks, as does gender–bending and the scalding boredom of married monogamy. Barbed references to race, religion and politics also pepper the plot that could apply just as well to America today as they do to 1960s England.
And then there is Orton’s piercing presentation of a broken mental health system: The doctors are completely batscat crazy while innocents are deemed insane by virtue of their unwillingness to cooperate. The play also reveals the inherent sexism in the system, relying on a ridiculous “elementary female psychology” as defined by pompous Dr. Rance: “She may mean ‘yes’ when she says ‘no’.”
“During Joe Orton’s time, there was a whole redefining of what ‘insane’ meant in psychology,” reflects Poole. “This play is a commentary on mental institutions and modern society.”
However contemporary the theme of the absurdity of our times, Poole keeps this production firmly in its time and place: Accents are clipped and the script is the original British version instead of the blander Americanized one that was used when the play first came across the pond. The set and costumes are of the perfect vintage, all orange shag rugs and psychedelic polyester and seamed stockings: Austin Powers has taken over the asylum.
Poole adds that this rollicking romp definitely isn’t appropriate for children, as one character sprints through the set in the second act wearing nothing but the bobby’s hat. The butler might not see much, but audiences will get an eyeful.
The Collective Face: What the Butler Saw
When: Aug. 3–18; Fridays at 8 p.m.; Saturdays at 3 and 8 p.m.
Where: Muse Arts Warehouse, 703D Louisville Rd.
Cost: $15 public, $10 students/seniors
Info: (912) 232-0018