Monday, February 6, 2012

Random acts of silliness

“What The Butler Saw” at Centerstage
review By Michael Dresdner 

Pictured at top: Alan Bryce, Samie Detzer and Dan Kremer, bottom: Nic Beach, Sally Brady, Alan Bryce.
Photos by Joe Orton

For pure, convoluted lunacy, it’s hard to beat the very funny, and very manic, “What The Butler Saw” at Centerstage. As usual for them, the acting, timing, direction (by Cynthia White), production and choice of property are top notch. But this is a very different sort of play than you might expect.

There’s no real plot, per se, but rather an endless, rapid-fire delivery of genuinely clever and funny set ups and punch lines dressed up with undressing, cross dressing, identity borrowing, misunderstanding, and complete and utter confusion. Think Benny Hill meets Noises Off, but with the snarky, spot-on wit of Oscar Wilde.

First, there’s Dr. Prentice (played by Centerstage artistic director Alan Bryce) who runs the insane asylum where the action is set, though we never see or hear any of the assumed inmates. Though Prentice more or less makes sense, every single thing he says is misunderstood by every single person. Of course, it does not help that his sentences frequently begin with “Take off your clothes…” Oddly enough, they all do, beginning with young Geraldine Barclay (Samie Detzer) who is there to interview as a secretary.

The doctor’s wife (Sally Brady), a nymphomaniac with low morals but high dudgeon, interrupts them when she arrives fresh from a tryst with a photo peddling young bell boy, and she, too, joins the clothes brigade. Naturally, the bell boy (Nic Beach) arrives hot on her heels and manages to strip to jockeys in short order. They’ll eventually be joined by Sgt. Match (Robert Alan Barnett), a classic London Bobby who, strangely, also consents to disrobe. Before long the stage is crisscrossed with folks either in underwear or dressing, and cross dressing, in each others’ outfits.

Meanwhile, this literal and figurative madhouse is being visited by Dr. Rance (Dan Kremer), an investigating government mental health director bent on uncovering… well, something nefarious at least. He manages to see perversity in each logical statement, and a strange logic in all the perverse ones. Hot on the trail of sexual aberration, in part as fodder for his dreamed of book, he’ll find it in every action and every word, often when the real circumstances are rather innocent.

They all manage to create so many layers of misunderstanding that everyone gets tied up in one illogical Gordian knot of confusion. Have no fear, though, you who’d prefer neat and happy endings. It’s all cleared up at the finale with a heavily contrived plot mechanism that leaves all the players, and the audience, with wide smiles.

As for the rest of the production support, lighting is excellent and the set is straightforward and completely utile, though the mix of furniture and clothing styles makes one wonder precisely when the action is taking place. I’d have to guess the sixties or seventies, based largely on clothes, which, at best, are challenging. After all, each dress and uniform gets worn by at least two characters, often of different gender and body types. Still, it all works, in part because they’re mere trappings for the barely controlled idiocy unfolding onstage.

Incidentally, the title, What the Butler Saw, has nothing whatever to do with the play. Why a title that seems to have been chosen randomly? Perhaps that’s what fits.

What The Butler Saw
Feb. 3rd to 26th, 2012
3200 SW Dash Point Road
Federal Way, WA 98003

1 comment:

Alan Bryce said...


Thanks for the strong review.

The title" "WHAT THE BUTLER SAW" refers to peep shows popular at British Seaside resorts in Edwardian times. You know the kind of put in a penny, look through the peepholes, turn a handle and as the pages flicker by, so you observe a parlor maid undressing. These peep shows were called "What The Butler Saw", indeed, I remember a few that were still extant during my childhood in the fifties. So the implication is, quite correctly, that the show is a peep into our naughtier instincts and desires!

And yes, the play was written in the sixties, and without thumping on that too heavily, that's what we tried to re-create.

But I think it is the extraordinary quality of the writing in WHAT THE BUTLER SAW that distinguishes it from other farces. So I couldn't agree more...Orton was often referred to as the "Oscar Wilde of the Twentieth Century".

His early death was a tragic loss to the English Stage.