STAGE REVIEWS: Magnum farce —”Bomb-itty of Errors,” “What the Butler Saw”

Dana Schultes and Garret Storms in "What the Butler Saw" at Stage West.

There are a lot of men in dresses lately, and I’m not even talking about the guys at the Rose Room or the cast of The Divine Sister at the Kalita. No, for some reason, it’s farce month at North Texas theaters, and a farce just isn’t complete without a little cross-dressing.

At Stage West in Fort Worth, at least some of the gender confusion is sexy, as a twinky bellhop (Garret Storms) strips down to his tightie-whities (well, really tightie-reddies) before slipping on a Carnaby Street mod-mini and pumps to swing his hips. The play is What the Butler Saw, the last of gay British playwright Joe Orton’s handful of full-length stage plays (it was first staged two years after Orton’s lover murdered him). There are no butlers in it, nor is there any butling. It isn’t even a mystery, as the name might suggest. All of which makes it exactly what it’s meant to be: a nonsensical knockabout set in a mental home, where the inmates might as well be running the asylum.

The beauty of Orton’s construction, and the stinging depth of his jokes and social commentaries (it’s a critique of bureaucracy), makes this Orton at his Oscar Wildest. If it weren’t for all the mid-20th century pop culture references, you might even mistake it for one of Wilde’s forgotten comedies of bad manners: Witty and withering. It does what is so hard for great farce to do: Make you forget to stupidity of the set-up and just run with it.

Much of that, however, is the result of Orton’s writing. The production at Stage West, while entertaining, could have been better. Farce needs to move like a pinball played by a bored teenager, bouncing from one direction to the next so that the brain almost doesn’t have time to think. Doors should open and close faster than mousetrap, and physically not only can be exaggerated, it has to be. That only occasionally happens here. With intermission, this version clocked in at 2:20; I bet they could trim 15 minutes off and get more laughs.

It may be nitpicking, though, to wish what-could-have-been when what’s in front of you isn’t bad. Patrick Bynane, as a psychiatrist trying to bed his secretary, could be even sleazier, and Dana Schultes as his nympho wife over-speaks her lines, but Katherine Bourne (as the drugged and naive secretary) and Storms as the randy bellhop manage quick changes and that great implacable look that makes farce all the funnier.

And, again, there’s the writing. While a comedy, What the Butler Saw is almost as ominous as Pinter, with Tom Stoppard’s sense of the surreal thrown in. (Although there’s no sci-fi, it’s tone is the same as Brazil). Listening to the government doctor (Jerry Russell) off-handedly diagnose a woman based on scant evidence and baseless confusions, you may forget you’re watching a play and have tuned on to a debate on healthcare on FoxNews. At least at Stage West, you can laugh when it’s over.

Zac Kelty and Joseph Holt in "Bomb-itty." Photo by Karen Almond.

There are quite a few laughs in Second Thought Theatre’s The Bomb-itty of Errors, although not as consistently interspersed. An 80-minute, four-actor remix of Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors set to a hip-hop score, it’s a dazzling and exhausting exercise. It also rises and falls on your tolerance for (1) mangled Shakespeare and (2) white boys mangling rap.

All the actors in Bomb-itty — Steven Walters, Drew Wall, Joseph Holt and Zac Kelty — are white men who lay down rap rhythms without a hint or irony. They’re more Vanilla Ice than Eminem though, and it’s never quite clear whether that’s meant to be ironic (part of the joke — they look ridiculous!) or merely a byproduct of the casting decisions. Let’s assume the former.

Errors is one of Shakespeare’s earliest and less polished comedies. It’s premise is so inane as to stretch even the most willing suspension of disbelief: Two sets of identical twins both with the same names even are unaware of each others’ existence until they happen to show up in the same town; mistaken identity madness ensures. Of course, none of the actors look even remotely alike, which itself becomes part of the joke, so you’re left with lots of chasing, complicated plotting, unlikely coincidence and ribald humor. It’s about as  sophisticated as fart in an elevator. You know, like a Judd Apatow movie.

To work, then, it requires an exceptionally talented cast, and that’s where Bomb-itty scores. Newcomers Holt and Kelty could squeeze laughs out of a rhubarb, especially when they don pink fright wigs and frocks and go all oh-no-you-di-INT! head-bobbing on the audience. (There’s so much sass and wiggage being thrown, you could call it a Minaj-erie.) There are si many racy Jewish jokes, sex jokes and Jersey Shore echoes that it’s almost like being stuck in a frat party. (The temperature of the Bryant Hall Theater makes it about as comfortable as one, too.) It’s sooo stupid but sooo tight and fast-paced — especially when Kelty goes full Jack Black mode and Holt and Wall twist their stringy bodies around like pipe cleaners — that you can almost overlook how repetitive the music is.

I was parched after the first song just listening to these guys; I don’t know how they maintain it. In some ways, they don’t. As a piece of hip-hop performance art, Bomb-itty is lacking, but as a piece of underground guerrilla theater, it’s a sobering smack in the face, and unlike anything else you’ll likely see in Dallas. That may be enough.

What the Butler Saw plays at Stage West through Aug. 5. The Bomb-itty of Errors plays through July 22 at Second Thought Theatre‘s Bryant Hall space.

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