In today’s Wall Street Journal drama column I report on a New Jersey revival of What the Butler Saw and the last of five productions at Wisconsin’s American Players Theatre, A Flea in Her Ear. Here’s an excerpt.
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Farce is the most paradoxical of all genres of comedy. It requires high discipline on the part of the director, the actors and their offstage collaborators to set in motion the whirligig of seeming onstage chaos that is farce at its best. Without split-second control, everything falls apart—and not in a good way, either. Joe Orton’s “What the Butler Saw,” a four-door farce of transcendent indelicacy, is as funny a play as has ever been written, but it won’t play itself: It must be staged to the hilt, unobtrusively but decisively and in precise accordance with Orton’s explicit requirement that the actors behave as though they have no idea that their plight is preposterous. “Unless it’s real,” he wrote, “it won’t be funny.” Paul Mullins’ unusually well-cast Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey production obeys that commandment, as well as all of Orton’s stage directions, with madly funny consequences….
In addition to sticking to the letter of the script, Mr. Mullins has encouraged the cast to develop primary-color characterizations that are clear but never exaggerated. Everyone obliges with the utmost effectiveness…
In a small house like the 308-seat F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre, farces can be produced with an up-close economy of dramatic gesture that suits Orton’s work quite well. In a large outdoor amphitheater like American Players Theatre’s 1,088-seat Up-the-Hill Theatre, where Georges Feydeau’s “A Flea in Her Ear” is currently being mounted, bigger and broader comic techniques are needed to engage the audience. David Frank’s APT revival of Feydeau’s 1907 masterpiece about hijinks at what Mr. Frank’s brand-new English-language adaptation dubs the Mount Venus Hotel (Feydeau called it the Hotel Coq d’Or) is nominally set in turn-of-the-century Paris. In practice, it feels more like a jumbo version of the kind of all-American sketch comedy in which Sid Caesar and Carol Burnett used to specialize—and I mean that as a compliment. The doors start slamming with abandon in the second act, and by play’s end you’ll be sore from rib-stretching laughter….
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Read the whole thing here.
Eamonn Andrews interviews Joe Orton on The Eamonn Andrews Show. This episode was originally telecast on April 23, 1967, while Orton was at work on What the Butler Saw: