Review: Kinky farce serves up laughs to kick off Theatre Conspiracy season

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What: A farce set inside a private insane asylum

When: 8 p.m. Aug. 27, 28, 29; Sept. 3, 4, 5; one 2 p.m. matinee on Aug. 29

Where: Founds Theater at the Lee County Alliance of the Arts complex, 10091 McGregor Boulevard, Fort Myers

Cost: $22; $10 for students

Information: 239-936-3239 or theatreconspiracy.org

Something Else: While there is no nudity, some subject matter may not be appropriate for a young audience.

10091 McGregor Boulevard
Fort Myers, FL
Phone: 239-936-3239
Email: info@theatreconspiracy.org

Theatre Conspiracy is proud to launch into a new mission. To produce and promote the work of the next generation of talented American playwrights. The theatre is a very difficult business for anyone involved but even more so for new ...

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— It is not every day that you see a terrified young woman clambering about a doctor's office clad in thigh-high stockings one minute, a bra and panties the next and a straightjacket mere minutes after that. Attendees at Theatre Conspiracy's latest production, the uproarious farce "What the Butler Saw," see all that - and much, much more.

The very British "Butler," written by Joe Orton, dates to 1969 and carries in its genes the wacky, absurdist comedic style that defines farce. Mistaken identities figure highly into the plot. There's a policeman - a staple of English farces - as well as a nod to the Greek tragedies and their obsession with sex. The show has had four different Off-Broadway runs, including a 2000 revival starring Chloe Sevigny.

Understanding the plot for "Butler" isn't exactly integral to enjoying the evening, but here goes anyway. The action takes place inside a single room at a private mental clinic, where the good Dr. Prentice first interviews and then seduces his secretary, the naive Geraldine Barclay. He is interrupted mid-seduction by his wife, who is herself being blackmailed by a hotel page named Nicholas Beckett. As if matters weren't complicated enough, the only slightly sane Dr. Rance shows up to "investigate" the clinic, followed by a policeman hunting Nicholas Beckett, who's been behaving improperly with schoolgirls. Dresses are exchanged. Straitjackets are fastened. Shots are fired. Laughs ring out.

Richard Westlake takes up the director's baton from Bill Taylor, Theatre Conspiracy's longtime artistic director. While Westlake obviously understands farce, he sometimes struggles to keep the two-hour show moving at a consistently madcap rate. The "Butler's" antics take far too long to get moving but do at least deliver a satisfying payoff once the show is underway.

Theatre Conspiracy regular J. Mitchell Haley dons a white coat, flushed face and not an ounce of shame to play the role of lusty psychiatrist Dr. Prentice. From sleazy to seductive to simply shocked, Mitchell manages any of a dozen situations with aplomb. My personal favorite comes early in the first act, when he convinces his naive blonde waif of an assistant (the sparkling Tera Nicole Miller) that she must undress for a complete physical examination to assess the extent of her secretarial skills. He caresses her shoulders, he rolls her hose, he speaks such nonsense and he beguiles her so.

Miller, for her part, is the honey-sweet damsel who's tossed about like a forlorn Dickensian child for much of the play. She loses her clothes, her hair and is eventually strapped into a straightjacket thanks to the machinations of the mad men around her. Hers is a mastery of subtle underplaying in a role that lacks much of the screaming, shouting and slamming available to other characters. The piteous wail as she begs people to "please just tell the truth" is possibly the funniest thing heard on stage all night.

The evening's most manic performance comes from Keegan Shayne (Dr. Rance). His quite insane inspector sports a wet-combed cowlick of hair and gigantic clod-hopper shoes that he uses to great effect every time he makes a great, thumping, look-at-me-because-I'm-important entrance. Shayne's over-the-top intensity breathes life into the at times meandering production and often lifts the performances around him.

Unota Kathryn Cintron (Mrs. Prentice) and Christoper Brent (Nicholas Beckett) are fine, although both could have shown more fire and zip in their delivery. Farce is as much about over-playing the role as it is about delivering the lines. Cintron delivers best in scenes where she confronts Haley about his character's increasingly bizarre behavior - their domestic disputes are tartly funny. Brent gamely dons a sequined red dress and heels to be tossed about like a sack of potatoes in one of the show's numerous mistaken identity sequences. Despite the drag, it isn't half as funny as his pants-falling-down bit in a policeman's uniform later on.

"Butler" is a fun little morsel of a play. It isn't quite roll in the aisles funny - although that may come as the cast grows more comfortable with each other and gets past obvious opening night jitters. The show has many surprising nuggets - including a jaw-droppingly outlandish denouement - and Miller's wide-eyed ingenue is worth the price of admission alone.

What can possibly be more amusing than a stage full of half-naked people? I text from the theater at twitter.com/napleschris.

© 2009 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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