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Washington DC by Tracy Lyon

What The Butler Saw

Also see Tracy's review of Three Sistahs

There is no butler to be seen in Signature Theatre's production of What The Butler Saw, and there is probably a good reason he decided to stay away. This exhausting farce, written by Joe Orton in the late sixties, was constructed to both scandalize and amuse its audience. Although this piece has retained much of its comic value, its ability to shock has diminished.

This randy tale was described by Orton himself as "likely to raise eyebrows in the Lord Chamberlain's office." It relates the story of a lecherous psychiatrist and the chaos that ensues when he attempts to seduce a young woman who is not his wife. In this piece, Orton openly mocks governmental incompetence, the institution of marriage, and sex. When it comes to sex, Orton doesn't leave anything out, including infidelity, homosexuality and a slew of jokes about rape that seem out of place in this day and age. And of course, there is that ever-present door slamming as the cast of characters shuttle on and off the stage in a state of frenzy.

What the Butler Saw
Tony Gudell, Daniel Frith
and Kevin Reese.
There are some extremely humorous moments in this play. Unfortunately, they don't come often enough and are sometimes missed due to the rapid-fire delivery of the dialogue. Nonetheless, one thing is evident throughout this production - the cast is having a wonderful time. Kevin Reese gives a strong performance as the lascivious Dr. Prentice. As his wife, Maura McGinn conveys some nice comic moments, but her performance seems to lag in places. Deanna Harris as Geraldine, the object of the doctor's lust, is the picture of innocence and bewilderment yet she has great timing and displays some terrific physical comedy.

As Mrs. Prentice's blackmailer, Daniel Frith is an immensely charming ruffian. His fellow actor, Conrad Feininger, plays the incompetent Dr. Rance. Feininger has succeeded in capturing the character's pompous attitude but at times he is difficult to understand. The true standout of this group is Tony Gudell as Sergeant Match. Gudell's role is very physical and like Ms. Harris, he displays some hilarious physical comedy.

Now, getting back to those doors; they are a huge part of the piece and scenic designer James Kronzer has provided four. The audience actually enters the theater through one of these doors, putting each one at center stage for one brief moment. Director Jonathan Bernstein makes good use of these doors, as they are key in moving the plot along. Mr. Bernstein does an admirable job with Orton's material. His actors move at a hectic pace that seems appropriate for the piece, but at times it is a bit too much.

As a whole, the show is amusing enough but it seems to be lacking. Perhaps it is a bit too frantic or it may be that the jokes have gone stale. At any rate, What The Butler Saw never quite comes together.

The Signature Theatre
What The Butler Saw
September 3rd - October 20th
By Joe Orton
Directed by Jonathan Bernstein
3806 S. Four Mile Run Drive
Arlington, VA 22206
Ticket Information: 703-218-6500 or 1-800-955-5566 or www.sig-online.org

Cast List

Dr. Rance: Conrad Feininger
Nicholas Beckett: Daniel Frith
Sergeant Match: Tony Gudell
Geraldine Barclay: Deanna Harris
Mrs. Prentice: Maura McGinn
Dr. Prentice: Kevin Reese


Photo: Carol Pratt


-- Tracy Lyon


Also see the Current Theatre Season Calendar for D.C.



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