‘What the Butler Saw’: The world’s funniest tragedy, at the Shakespeare Theatre in Madison

What the Butler Saw by Joe Orton. The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey 2017. Directed by Paul Mullins. Pictured (left to right): Peter Simon Hilton as Dr. Prentice, Allison Layman as Geraldine Barclay and John Hutton as Dr. Rance. Photo credit: Jerry Dalia.
What the Butler Saw by Joe Orton. The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey 2017. Directed by Paul Mullins. Pictured (left to right): Peter Simon Hilton as Dr. Prentice, Allison Layman as Geraldine Barclay and John Hutton as Dr. Rance. Photo credit: Jerry Dalia.
0

 

Observe the speed limit, if you must.  But proceed with all due haste to the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey in Madison.

And if, perchance, you get pulled over en route, politely explain to the officer that no matter what the radar gun said, you weren’t flying half as fast as the laughs at What the Butler Saw.

This ferocious farce, which runs through Oct. 1, 2017, is possibly the world’s funniest tragedy.

What the Butler Saw by Joe Orton. The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey 2017. Directed by Paul Mullins. Pictured (left to right): Vanessa Morosco as Mrs. Prentice, John Hutton as Dr. Rance, and Peter Simon Hilton as Dr. Prentice. Photo credit: Jerry Dalia.
What the Butler Saw by Joe Orton. The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey 2017. Directed by Paul Mullins. Pictured (left to right): Vanessa Morosco as Mrs. Prentice, John Hutton as Dr. Rance, and Peter Simon Hilton as Dr. Prentice. Photo credit: Jerry Dalia.

The tragic part is that playwright Joe Orton didn’t live to see his masterwork performed–or to write more comedy.

His longtime companion bludgeoned him to death, and then swallowed a fatal dose of sleeping pills, a month after Orton finished What the Butler Saw in 1967. Orton was just 34.

Set in an insane asylum, the play was daring for its day. It flouted and flaunted sexual taboos at a time when they could have landed Orton, who was openly gay, in a British prison.

After a half-century of pop culture, the taboos no longer are shocking. But the play’s core question — who defines “truth”? — remains all too relevant in an era when falsehoods threaten to undermine the foundations of society.

“Civilizations have been founded and maintained on theories which refused to obey facts,” opines Dr. Rance, the government inspector who is a central protagonist in What the Butler Saw.

what the butler saw poster

Played with devilish pomposity by John Hutton,  Dr. Rance skewers the psychiatric profession by snap-misdiagnosing every character in the play — which starts with the respected Dr. Prentice attempting to seduce virginal secretarial candidate Geraldine Barclay (Allison Layman).

Peter Simon Hilton’s Dr. Prentice is a cross between Monty Python’s Graham Chapman and John Cleese. He and Rance wage an all-out duel for laughs. Prentice takes the early lead, but Rance comes on strong as the first act roars to intermission at breakneck speed.

What the Butler Saw by Joe Orton. The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey 2017. Directed by Paul Mullins. Pictured (left to right): Allison Layman as Geraldine Barclay and Peter Simon Hilton as Dr. Prentice. Photo credit: Jerry Dalia.
What the Butler Saw by Joe Orton. The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey 2017. Directed by Paul Mullins. Pictured (left to right): Allison Layman as Geraldine Barclay and Peter Simon Hilton as Dr. Prentice. Photo credit: Jerry Dalia.

The complications snowball when Dr. Prentice’s cougar-ish wife, played by Vanessa Morosco (Hippolyta/Titania under the stars this summer in A Midsummer Night’s Dream) barges into her husband’s office and nearly discovers his half-naked secretarial applicant.

Dr. Prentice’s feverish attempts to hide Barclay devolve into a rapid-fire, slapstick series of mistaken identities, compounded by Dr. Rance’s fallacious deductions.

Clothing is shed. Genders get bent. Sedatives are injected. Bellhops (Robbie Simpson) become cops (Jeffrey M. Bender). Bullets fly. 

Never mind hitting their marks. It’s a testament to the actors and to veteran director Paul Mullins that nobody gets hurt in this comic maelstrom.

Just as the storm appears to peter out in the second act, it gathers renewed force and spins in an unexpected direction.

Morosco’s Mrs. Prentice performs a feat in a straitjacket that would make Houdini proud. Skeletons tumble from linen closets. Sir Winston Churchill makes a cameo appearance.

Like we said, hit the gas. Check your inhibitions at the door. Re-fasten your seat belt. And enjoy the tragically hysterical ride.

‘What the Butler Saw’ runs through Oct. 1, 2017, at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, at Drew University, 36 Madison Ave., Madison. Tickets: $49-59. Call 973-408-5600.

 

If you’ve read this far… you clearly value your local news. Now we need your help to keep producing the local coverage you depend on! More people are reading Morristown Green than ever. But costs keep rising. Reporting the news takes time, money and hard work. We do it because we, like you, believe an informed citizenry is vital to a healthy community.

So please, CONTRIBUTE to MG or become a monthly SUBSCRIBER. ADVERTISE on Morristown Green. LIKE us on Facebook, FOLLOW us on Twitter, and SIGN UP for our newsletter.

Click here for reuse options!
Copyright 2017 MorristownGreen.com

LEAVE A REPLY