May 13, 2004
CONTACT: Mike Stepanovich, 661/664-2456 or mstepanovich@csub.edu

A classic British farce that will not only leave audiences rollicking but also have a dramatic twist at the end opens at California State University, Bakersfield’s Doré Theater Thursday, May 20, at 8 p.m.

“What the Butler Saw,” by acclaimed playwright Joe Orton, has been described as “the hilarious mutual indiscretions of a randy British psychiatrist and his flirtatious wife in an outrageous and dazzling verbal romp. Part Oscar Wilde, part ‘Fawlty Towers,’ (a British sitcom of the 1970s) and part Benny Hill, Orton's timeless work on lunatic logic has been hailed as a masterpiece of modern farce.”

Written in 1967, but not performed until 1969 after Orton’s death, “What the Butler Saw” is enjoying a revival of late, said CSUB theater professor Donald LaPlant, who is directing the play. “It’s become popular and timely all of a sudden,” he said. “People have been doing this play a lot the last year or so. There was a pretty high profile production in Boston, and one just finished in Los Angeles.”

Considered tame by today’s standards, the play was thought “quite naughty” when it was first produced. It tweaks convention and challenges the establishment, and opened to protestors in the lobby back in 1969, LaPlant said. “Joe Orton had the reputation of being a professional bad boy, and the critics were saying of course that the younger generation was just picking on authority as they always do.”

But while “What the Butler Saw” has a wild, anarchic streak to it, “it’s clear that Joe Orton really knew the classical tradition, farce and classical references,” he said. “He was fascinated by Greek mythology – there are all sorts of sly illusions to Dionysus and even conventions of Greek theater that he mixes into the play that on the surface are light and fluffy and funny.”

LaPlant said he choose the play for a couple different reasons. “Whenever we’re choosing the plays we’re going to produce in a season, it’s difficult because there are so many different things we’re trying to do – giving actors challenges and a variety of styles to work in, providing a balance between serious and comic plays, and something that we can do with the resources that we have. So on one level the choice is pragmatic. But directors also want to do plays that they’re interested in.

“I didn’t read this play until I was in my doctoral program, and it was just the funniest thing I had read in a really long time. And it’s funny on two levels: it’s low, farce, slapstick, but it’s really tightly written – the verbal wit of it and all the aphorisms that come out. In one speech, there’ll be five or six really witty jokes, and even if the audience gets two of them it really holds their attention and is funny. I think the cast is really going to be surprised at some of the things the audience laughs at.”

And there’s lots to laugh at. The two-act play explores the shady private practice of Dr. Prentice, a lusty psychiatrist who, as the curtain rises, is attempting to seduce Geraldine Barclay, a prospective secretary. But the unexpected arrival of Mrs. Prentice during the “interview” causes chaos to ensue. The situation deepens when Dr. Rance shows up for a government inspection. All the while, Sergeant Match is conducting a search for two "confused" offenders and Mrs. Prentice can't help but make every situation even more perplexed.

The plot of “What the Butler Saw” contains enough twists and turns, mishaps and changes of fortune, coincidences and lunatic logic to furnish three or four conventional comedies.

The task of pulling off this madcap caper falls to a cast of six CSUB student actors:

“What the Butler Saw” is the final play of an English playwright who started his career in theater as an actor but switched to writing in the late 1950s.

Biographical sketches found on the Internet say his first successful play was a radio play, “The Ruffian on the Stair,” broadcast by the BBC. His three full-length plays, “Entertaining Mr. Sloane” (1964); “Loot” (1965); and “What the Butler Saw” (1969) were all successful. They were all "outrageous and unconventional black comedies that scandalized audiences with their examination of moral corruption, violence, and sexual rapacity,” according to the Encyclopedia Britannica.

The play’s name, LaPlant said, is taken from a Victorian age device, an early motion-picture machine that viewers would crank to provide a voyeuristic view of people behind closed doors. “The machines became known as ‘what the butler saw’ machines,” he said. “The play builds on this voyeuristic impulse that most people have. We like to peer into the hidden behavior of others.”

“What the Butler Saw” opens Thursday, May 20, for a two-weekend run. The curtain rises Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, May 20-22, and Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, May 27-29 at 8 p.m. A matinee performance is scheduled Sunday, May 30, at 2 p.m. Admission is $10 for adults, $8 for seniors (60+) and CSUB faculty and staff, and $5 for students with ID.

For more information, please call the CSUB Theater Department at (661) 664-3093.



Dr. Prentice (Sam Yaeck) begins to prey upon the innocent Geraldine (Leah Espericueta) in the opening scenes of "What the Butler Saw."

Dr. Prentice (Sam Yaeck) tries to stay one step ahead of Mrs. Prentice (Alissa Morrow), as the bellboy (Jeff Locke) looks on during the first act of "What the Butler Saw."