HotHouse Theatre Co. continues its season with Joe Orton's What the Butler Saw, a logical choice for a company building its reputation on edgy, provocative theater.
Orton's play may seem toothless by contemporary standards; since Butler first shocked and infuriated British audiences 32 years ago, we've had Monty Python, Saturday Night Live and South Park. The social conventions Orton railed against for the most part no longer exist. We all know, thanks in part to Orton (and fellow farceurs Nixon, Reagan and Clinton) that governments do insane things and society is hypocritical. The play still shocks, but for a different reason -- whereas jokes about rape may have been a way of broaching a touchy subject in prefeminist days, now they leave a nasty taste.
Still, Orton's genius lay in his ability to use theatrical conventions to strip away social conventions. He used the rules of farce -- cross-dressing, mistaken identity, infidelity and the anarchic overturning of the status quo -- and pushed them to the limits of taste and reason, forcing the audience to examine the underlying darker impulses of these "comic" antics and, by extension, the conventions of the larger society. Throw in bloodshed, incest, castration and some hilarious one-liners, and, at least in the very funny second act of the HotHouse production (which rises from the ashes of a disheveled first act), Butler still packs a punch.
What better place for examination of conventions than a government-run insane asylum, where the attempts of Dr. Prentice (Kevin Beyer) at seducing a new secretary (Rachel Jackson) are cut short by the return of his wife (Donna M. Parroné)? A hotel pageboy (Andy Neiman) with whom she spent the previous night has incriminating photos he hopes to use to land him a job at the asylum. The couple's attempts to conceal each other's indiscretions set the action in motion. With the arrival of government inspector Dr. Rance (Christopher Limber), who diagnoses madness everywhere he looks, the insanity begins.
It's in this early, expositional part that the production gets off on the wrong foot. Director Marty Stanberry chooses to jump-start the absurdity from the first moments rather than establish a status quo from which the insanity can grow. Anarchy by definition needs order to exist, and the same goes for farce. Without Margaret Dumont playing straight, the Marx Brothers wouldn't be as funny, just more chaotic. In this production, the actors start Act 1 already at an Act 2 level, overreaching in an attempt to quickly establish a broad style, playing for laughs rather than being funny. There is supposed to be comic irony in having the chaos introduced by an authority figure, but by the time Dr. Rance arrives, the chaos is already thriving. With the introduction of a policeman (Dan McGee) investigating the alleged disappearance of both the secretary and certain unmentionable parts of a Winston Churchill statue, the play threatens to spin out of control.
After intermission, the play catches up with the actors. The over-the-top performances are a better fit for the ever-increasing chaos of Act 2, and the production eventually coalesces into an enjoyable and funny second half. Limber, who played Churchill in a Historyonics production last year, appears to be having an especially good time basically doing the insane version of Sir Winston. His frequent attempts to "rationalize" the ongoing action are hilarious, as is his interplay with Parroné, who looks like Lucille Ball in a turban. Beyer does well anchoring the plot, never losing sight of his desire to hide his self-incriminating actions, even when it becomes pointless. Jackson is good as the secretary, the only "normal" person in the play. She keeps insisting that everything could be cleared up if Dr. Prentice would simply tell the truth. Of course, then there would be no play and, in Orton's view, no society, either. Deception and hypocrisy keep the institutions going. But the truth finally comes out, as does the missing statue part, leading to a happy ending and a new status quo that's anything but conventional.