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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Joe Orton's What the Butler Saw
A Production on Steroids

Also see Richard's reviews of M. Butterfly and Kiss of the Spiderwoman

What the Butler Saw

Theatre Rhinoceros is opening its 2006-2007 season with Joe Orton's comedy What the Butler Saw. It plays in the small studio through September 24th. What the Butler Saw was first presented on March 5, 1969 in London. The first public performance of the British farce was reportedly barracked with cries of "filth!" The production caused an uproar in British society since it poked fiendish fun at everything that Britons held dear in the '60s. As the character of Dr. Rance says, this is a tale of incest, buggery, outrageous women and strange love cults under the guise of the British psychology. The farce also skewers psychiatry, religion, heterosexuality, homosexuality and society in general.

I first saw the play in London during the winter of 1969 and I thought it was one of the best farces I had seen in years. There is one thing that British actors can do better than their American counterparts, and that is playing great farcical roles. I have seen several productions in the U.K that were first rate, with actors having split-second timing. The best American production I had seen was in La Jolla in 1992 with Max Wright, Kate Mulgrew and Don Harvey; it was almost comparable to the British productions.

You won't see a butler in the play since this was the late Joe Orton's little peccadilloes for the West End audiences. His clever witticisms show a modern day Oscar Wilde wit and come from dialogue rather than the actions of the characters. The playwright was spoofing the British prissiness about sex.

What the Butler Saw opens in the examination room of a mental hospital where Dr. Prentice (Matt Weimer) is examining a beautiful young Geraldine Barclay (Sage Howard) for a job interview. He convinces her to undress as part of the interview. When the wife (Trish Tillman) enters, he attempts to cover up his activity by hiding the girl behind a curtain. With this, the farce is off and running. Soon the girl is dressed as a boy and a boy is dressed as a girl, Winston Churchill is missing body parts (don't ask how that comes into play) and the doctor is digging himself further and further into trouble by piling up more and more ridiculous lies.

Joe Orton's dialogues are priceless, such as the wife saying "I hardly ever have sexual intercourse," to which the husband replies, "You were born with your legs apart. They'll send you to the grave in a Y-shaped coffin".

Director John Fisher's production goes completely over the top, especially in the acting of David Bicha (Medea the Musical, The Man who came to Dinner at the Rhino) as Dr. Rance. His role as a government doctor is far too campy and he overplays the entrances and exits. There is a long dissertation toward the end of the second act that completely stops the play (sometimes companies delete this long speech to tighten up the production). Matt Weimer (Schoenberg, Bent, Medea: the Musical at the Rhino) as the respectable head of the psychiatric clinic starts out great as he attempts to seduce the interviewee. He depicts dead pan significance with scarcely concealed lust. His outrage that the seduction is interrupted is nicely presented as all hell breaks loose with the comings and goings on of this zany group.

Trish Tillman (teaches acting in the Bay Area) almost steals the show as she pops in and out of scenes. She has the English accent down proper and she looks like a proper English lady with a fondness for the bottle of whiskey on the doctor's desk. Her character is somewhat of a nymphomaniac, especially since she was agreeably raped by bellman Nicholas Beckett at the Standard Hotel. Sage Howard (making her Bay Area debut) is delightful as the young, na´ve Geraldine Barclay. She has the mannerisms for what a British farcical actress is all about.

Keith Donovan (Adventures of Capt Queer at the NCTC), a rising young actor, is excellent as both the randy bellman Nicholas Beckett and in drag when he is dressed as a tart. He plays the drag beautifully and has just the right amount of camp to make the character interesting. He has a great presence on stage, even when he is running around in his very brief red underwear that must make those men in the front row pant. My only objection to his bellman role is that he is chewing gum all of the time. It seems an unnecessary ploy to show him as a sensual young man who goes for both sexes.

Ryan Oden (variety of theatre including Cutting Ball, TheatreWorks and Impact Theatre) rounds out the cast as the Detective . He is effective in the role although he goes overboard as a guy on drugs dressed in a Tarzan-like outfit (again, don't ask why).

One of the main problems is that is that this show is being presented on a very small studio stage in the basement of the Theatre Rhino. This farce needs a large stage so the actors can come and go through the four doors of the set. These actors go overboard in athletics in some of the scenes which destroys the playwright's clever words. Set designer Brook Elder does what he can to present an examination room with doors in this cramped space.

Director John Fisher has decided to make this a raucous sex farce rather than what the British usually have done with the classic. He has made the farce more athletic than is normally presented. This is a production on steroids.

What the Butler Saw runs though September 24th in the Studio Theatre of Theatre Rhinoceros, 2926 16th at South Van Ness, San Francisco. Tickets can be obtained by calling 415-552-4100 ext 104 or visiting www.therhino.org.

The Rhino's next production is a co-production with the American Conservatory Theatre of Thomas Mann's Death in Venice with Giles Havergal at the Zeum Theatre, Howard at 4th, San Francisco. For more on that go to www.act-sf.com.


Photo: Kent Taylor


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema



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