By David Dixon
One playwright whose work doesn’t get produced often in San Diego is the late English writer, Joe Orton.
Known for his uniquely British and absurd sense of humor, Orton’s shows include dark comedies like “Loot,” “Evening Mr. Sloane” and “Funeral Games.”
A production of his lowbrow, “What the Butler Saw,” is now playing at La Mesa’s Lamplighters Community Theatre.
Set in a psychiatric clinic, the madness begins during an interview between Dr. Prentice (Nathan Boyer) and an attractive younger woman, Geraldine Barclay (Katherine Saint Marie). He tries to convince her to take off her clothes for his own perverted reasons.
Prentice lies to Geraldine and says he wants her to be naked to decide if she has what it takes to be a stenographer. The doctor’s lie gets him into trouble when his wife, Mrs. Prentice (Julie Clemmons) randomly enters the room.
What follows is an insane misadventure with a variety of oddball characters and out of control situations.
One of the most amusing traits about Prentice for Boyer is his self-important and all-knowing attitude.
“He hides behind his desk and puts up a pompous front,” Boyer said. “Orton mocks so many elements of the establishment.”
Clemmons acknowledges how over the top Orton’s humor can get. “It’s like Benny Hill on steroids,” she said.
While Clemmons hasn’t played in too many British farces, she loves the ones she has performed in during her career.
Clemmons isn’t sure if she will be taking some of her younger kids to the play. A lot of the jokes are sexual and edgy, to say the least. She believes, however, that even sensitive viewers will still laugh hysterically through the performance.
Many of the scenes were more shocking to watch when the theatrical piece premiered in 1969.
Devin Wade, who plays an often-shirtless bellhop, Nicholas Beckett, really appreciates what Orton was able to get away with. Some of the particular subjects that Orton pokes fun at throughout numerous silly situations are homophobia (Orton was openly gay) and transvestitism.
Although British comedic artists have always been open to mocking taboo subject matter, Beckett feels that today’s American generation is generally more sensitive.
“The timing is perfect for this story,” he said. “There are topics that need to be addressed again.”
A particular character that doesn’t conform to the social norm is an insane inspector, Dr. Rance (set designer, Frank Godinez). He wants to cross dress and hopes to fool around with practically everyone at the clinic.
“I love Orton’s writing and speaking his dialogue,” he said. “His writing is chock full o’ nuts. I just dig Orton’s style.”
Before auditioning, Godinez was surprised when he found out that some of his female performing arts friends had no interest in auditioning for “What the Butler Saw.” Godinez didn’t realize why they were repulsed until re-reading the script.
“Orton hides the more controversial content so well with big fancy words and terminology,” he said. “He’s quite amazing to be able to teach a lesson while getting away with lowbrow comedic moments.”
The couple responsible for the mischievous interpretation is director Keith Anderson, and co-producer, Mary Anderson. “What the Butler Saw” is Keith Anderson’s 47th community theater production in San Diego County.
Every cast/crew member has a lot of respect for the Andersons. A supporting actor who loves the ego-free set is Bud Emerson who depicts a hapless officer, Sergeant Match.
“One of the things I like about Keith and Mary Anderson is they don’t cast people who don’t have character,” he said. “You never see them cast stars who are toxic.”
For Keith Anderson, Orton’s script stands out because of the satirical tone.
“Orton satirizes the English social scene, monarchy and socialism,” he said.
Mary Anderson finds the timing of the production to be ironic. Opening night was the evening after the recent presidential inauguration.
“Rance is writing a book and mentions that he finds facts to be meaningless,” she said. “Given the current social climate, that’s very prominent in today’s world.”
Given some of the extreme reactions to the presidential inauguration ceremony, Orton’s narrative promises to provide a hilarious eve of fun. Mary and Keith Anderson, along with the cast, are pulling no punches for nonstop belly laughs.
—David Dixon is a freelance theater and film writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.