Farce is a notoriously difficult genre to pull off. If the comedy is played up too much, character nuance gets was out in favour of cheap gags and nonsensical plotting. If the melodrama is too highly stressed, characters become sterile and everything entertaining to the audience gets erased. There’s no doubt that Players’ Theatre’s inaugural 2014-2015 production, What the Butler Saw (written by Joe Orton and directed by Daniel Carter) is a farce—it’s just couched within the playwright’s pitch-black sense of humor and touches on themes like murder, incest, insanity, and general debauchery. What results is a mishmash of genres that unexpectedly compliment each other—it’s farcical, but not cutesy; humourous, but not too dark. The talented cast and crew manage to walk the fine tonal line set by the text to a mostly successful end.
The play begins in a straightforward manner: A misogynistic psychiatrist, Dr. Prentice (Ali Aasim), interviews a potential secretary (Isobel Van Hagen) for his practice. The seemingly standard interview is quickly subverted when he asks her to strip naked under ridiculous pretenses. The play unravels in multiple different directions as more characters—the doctor’s wife (Amalea Ruffett), a rival psychiatrist (Daniel Austin-Boyd), a police sergeant (Cara Krisman), and a perverted hotel clerk (Aws Waham)—are drawn into the doctor’s web of madness and lies. Secrets are revealed, people are shot, and a statue replica of Winston Churchill’s penis is uncovered, all prior to the play’s genuinely surprising final scene.
What makes What the Butler Saw work so well is that Orton makes no pretense of sympathizing with his characters—a principle that trickles down through every aspect of the production. Under the direction of Daniel Carter, the production team makes everything about the play—from the subject matter outwards—ugly in a way that is too professional to be an accident. The utilitarian set design perfectly services the frayed-nerve tone of the play—one standout example being a rolling cart with two of the wheels removed to make a horrific screeching sound whenever it gets moved. Characters delivering monologues are lit in a deep red that casts an eerie glow over the stage and sound effects seem to be played as loud as possible for maximum effect.
While the acting is the most uneven part of the play, the actors get at least one moment each to reveal their true talents. Aasim serves as a fine anchor to the madness, playing Dr. Prentice as an immature cad who is quickly pushed out of his comfort zone—he does a subtle job of playing a moron who is utterly out of depth. Krisman is the clear standout of the production, stealing every scene she’s in and wringing every ounce of humour and pathos out of a role that could have been one-note. Van Hagen and Ruffett are also wonderful as two diametrically opposed characters who end up playing the entire gamut of human emotions throughout the course of the play. Austin-Boyd probably sinks his teeth a little too deeply into the role of the sniveling antagonist, but he brings a manic physicality that’s hard to ignore. In fact, the actors in the production all manage to nail the physicality of their performances, even when they can’t quite match the intended cadence of Orton’s dialogue.
The play itself is perhaps Orton’s magnum opus, expertly blending dark meditations on gender roles, psychiatric authority, and the absurdity of social norms with pithy wordplay that hasn’t lost its bite nearly fifty years later. While it’s certainly not for anyone who gets offended easily, those who can manage to get onto its difficult wavelength will derive endless pleasure from the show.
What the Butler Saw runs from September 24 to 27 at 8 p.m. at the McGill Players’ Theatre (3480 McTavish). Tickets are $6 for students, and $10 for the general public.