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What The Butler Saw -05/14/1999

Creative team: Director Martha Stewart; Scenic Designers Jeremy Stiller and Chris Terven; Lighting Designer Nick Becker; Costume Designer Carol Scott.

Play: What the Butler Saw
Venue: Heartland Theater, 1100 N. Beech St., Normal
Dates: 7:30 p.m. May 15 and 20-22, 2 pm May 16
Cost: General, $10; students and seniors, $8; groups over ten, $7


Playwright Joe Orton was an odd bird. And that's just the way he liked it.

His plays, including "What the Butler Saw," now at the Heartland Theater, combine frantic farce with darker undertones of absurdity and sexual cruelty. That's a hard mix to pull off, especially when it comes with dialogue that sounds like a spoof sometimes and an outrage at others.

The Heartland Theater company, led by director Martha Smith, play it mostly as a spoof, which is apparently not what Orton himself wanted. He thought it should be played realistically.

This way it's funny in stretches and the audience responds well, even if it seems a little rough around the edges, a bit uneven.

This is a show that must be played swift, slick and manic to work, and it requires total commitment from its actors. The Heartland production almost makes it, but not quite. They need to pick up the pace even more, work on little things like cue pick-ups, and really fly by the seats of their, uh, undies.

It's not easy, given the tricky material, with its components of basic sex farce thrown into the Bizarro World.

Characters? There's a lecherous psychiatrist who asks everyone to undress; his sex-crazed wife who may or may not be sleeping with every man she meets; a nubile would-be secretary; a double-dealing bellboy; a deranged government official who's trying to write a book; and a thick-headed policeman not above nudity and drugs.

They all congregate in the doctor's office, which is literally a madhouse, as they exchange clothes, run in and out of closets, uncover secrets, and leap to erroneous conclusions. What the butler actually saw or who the butler is remains unclear, although it apparently has something to do with Winston Churchill and a significant missing portion of a statue.

The Heartland cast is energetic and tart, with especially good work from Dan Horn as the odious, bombastic government man (a favorite target of Orton's), Dawn-Alena Worth as the blue-eye-shadowed wife, and Shannon Clausen as the naive secretary applicant who spends most of the play in her undies.

Jeremy Stiller, who takes double duty as lead actor and co-set designer, generates comedy as the "transvestite, festishest, bisexual murderer" of a doctor, although he could benefit from more volume and a less breathless, rhythmic delivery.

The scenic design, credited to Stiller and Chris Terven, is functional -- plenty of doors to run in and out -- and its slightly skewed nature makes the point, but overall, it seems a bit plain and unvarnished to really impress.

Carol Scott's costume design is wonderful, however, with a marvelous pink dress straight from the 60's and an interesting collection of underwear.

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