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In the right mood, Orton's 'What the Butler Saw' is a blast

TAMPA — It's difficult to watch Joe Orton's farce What the Butler Saw without recalling Oscar Wilde. Orton and Wilde were both interested in exposing hypocrisy among the British upper class, and both used similar theatrical templates for their observations

But Wilde tiptoed through the hallways of the elite, hid in their closets and poked at his targets with tiny but very pointed poison darts. Orton invades that same world — one that he, unlike Wilde, did not himself inhabit — and swings wildly at it with an ax.

Orton's play eschews delicacy and subtlety, and that's not necessarily bad. What the Butler Saw is very entertaining, and sometimes very funny. But you have to be attuned, in both mood and taste, to broad, silly comedy if you're going to enjoy it.

It's also very difficult stuff for actors to pull off. It requires a deft touch and precise timing. Jobsite Theater's current production of What the Butler Saw succeeds fairly well.

The plot, if you can call it that, has a psychiatrist (played by David Jenkins) ineptly seducing a girl (Katie Castonguay) who's applying to be his assistant. His wife (Caroline Jett) interrupts the seduction, and the psychiatrist's attempts to hide his indiscretion lead to progressively complicated (and progressively implausible) high jinks. By the end of the show, most of the dramatis personae have disrobed and somehow managed to put on one of the other character's clothes.

The entire Jobsite cast, especially Jett, handles the extreme physical demands of the play well. Sight gags are at least half the fun.

The vocal delivery isn't as strong. Director Katrina Stevenson and the cast keep the throttle wide open right from the start, substituting mere speed for nuanced comic timing. Lines are delivered so frenetically that many of them are hard to understand, especially in a second-act sequence performed while the familiar underscoring from The Benny Hill Show plays. (Calling it underscoring is a bit of a stretch, actually. The music is at least as loud as the dialogue.)

Time has had an interesting effect on What the Butler Saw. When it premiered in 1969, it was shocking, almost scandalous. Intimations of homosexuality and descriptions of debauchery among people in respectable professions were rare in any medium, and probably more so in British theater.

Now such subject matter is commonplace, and the jokes that must have seemed so appallingly hilarious then simply seem crude now.

Even if the jokes have lost some of their piquancy, though, a lot of them are still pretty funny. If you're not looking for anything more than two hours of low-brow entertainment, and if you don't mind the playwright's obsession with sex, Orton's play and Jobsite's production can serve up exactly what you're hungry for.

Review

What the Butler Saw

The show, which contains adult language, situations and subject matter, is 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 4 p.m. Sunday and runs through Jan. 29. About 130 minutes. Shimberg Theater at David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, 1010 N MacInnes Place, Tampa. $24.50 and up. (813) 229-7827. tbpac.org.

In the right mood, Orton's 'What the Butler Saw' is a blast 01/20/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 20, 2010 7:38pm]

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