Mini-review – What The Butler Saw – The Vaudeville

by

My feeling of elation on walking out of The Vaudeville after seeing What The Butler Saw is difficult to put into words. I felt like Joe Orton had just jumped the shark, landed on a rocket and shot to the moon. The whole play is a cascading series of ridiculousness that’s clearly in the farce tradition (person tells lie, gets into trouble) but all twisted and manipulated to make it feel horribly modern and inappropriate even for the sixties. It oozes the unrestricted sexuality I enjoyed in the previous Joe Orton work I’d seen – many of the characters are bi and quite free with themselves, including the lead character’s wife – and this, to me, turned the formula of the Commedia Dell’arte (read: “One Man, Two Governors”) on its head. It’s still all nudge nudge wink wink and occasional slamming doors (four at once), but instead of stock characters we have a money-hungry rentboy, a married woman who’s in a club for lesbians, and characters who engage in and discuss a variety of non-vanilla sexual practices. All in all, a good looking naked man running across stage mid-show isn’t really all that surprising – it’s just another jolly treat in Orton’s pick a mix bag of dodginess.

While some of the dialog and attitudes seem a bit hard to swallow (you can practically write your own joke here – Orton would have), I fell in love with this production because of the way it felt like every word, character, and action was knowingly transgressive – not just of its time (the Churchill jokes alone make me imagine it would have made blood boil when it was new) but of ours, still. The actors uniformly pushed it further, turning the dial up to eleven and just completely going for it. I felt there was a manic energy on stage and was completely swept up in it, laughing loudly and snorting frequently. Meanwhile, the aged American professor sitting next to me found it just not in the least bit comic. Ah well.

I advise seeing this as soon as possible: they may tone it down and you don’t want to miss this gem while it’s still completely over the top. It’s funnier than anything I’ve seen since London Assurance. Later it may just be another show with perfect timing and every line memorized: right now, it’s joyfully shocking and raw and the actors know it. Just remember: don’t take the kids.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Monday, May 14th, 2012. It continues through August 25th.)

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