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February 25, 2008

UT strikes gold with Orton’s Loot

[img id="80357" align="alignleft"] It appears that the University of Chicago is quietly staging a minor Joe Orton renaissance. With Court Theatre’s production of Orton’s 1966 What the Butler Saw winning rave reviews last quarter and now a revival of his 1965 black comedy Loot premiering at the Reynold’s Club Third Floor Theatre tomorrow, it looks like Orton fever has hit campus.

Not that Joe Orton’s impious sensibility ever really went out of fashion. The reigning provocateur of the London scene until his notorious murder in 1967, Orton tore down the barriers, and to some extent set the agenda, for such later playwrights as Christopher Durang, David Lindsay-Abaire, and Martin McDonagh—not to mention a little comedy troupe called Monty Python.

Clearly, Orton is still very much with us. But with the aforementioned newcomers pushing the boundaries of decency ever further, is Orton still as outrageously funny as he once was?

Judging by a Sunday rehearsal of UT’s production of Loot, I’d have to say he is. Loot tells the story of a pair of bank robbers who hide the cash they’ve stolen in the coffin of one robber’s recently deceased mother. Hilarious complications ensue as the embalmed corpse keeps turning up at the most inopportune moments. Meanwhile, a devoutly Catholic and quite deadly home nurse finagles her way to fortune by seducing the highest bidder. Add to the mix a pugnacious and deeply corrupt inspector posing as a man from the Metropolitan Water Board, and you have a play that thumbs its nose at all authority and conventional wisdom, including liberal democratic piety. “In any other political system I would have you on the floor in tears!” Inspector Truscott tells one of the robbers as he pummels him. “You have me on the floor in tears!” the robber replies.

But the play is more than a zany, flippant farce, according to director Steve Balady: “The play is honest in its portrayal of human contradictions. In Loot there’s no character who we sympathize with too much, and no outright villain. In the play, as in life, people are both dishonest and honest depending on whether they are playing their public or private selves.”

Joel Putnam, who plays the bereaved robber Hal, agrees with Balady, saying his character is not wholly bad. “Hal wants to open a brothel, but he can’t lie,” he said. “I’ve heard that Catholics always follow one rule they got from their upbringing, no matter how bad they are. Hal’s rule is ‘no lying.’”

Because certain aspects of the play resemble the physical comedy and fast-paced, tongue-in-cheek dialogue of Monty Python sketches, Balady says he initially thought the iconic television show would have a great influence on how he directed Loot. But this didn’t turn out to be the case. “All of my actors are so funny, and they have such strong personalities, that the humor just suggested itself. I’m not ashamed to say it didn’t turn out like Python.”

Nevertheless, Candice Gallagher, who plays the seductive Fay, said that at least in a one respect their humor and Python’s are similar. “Monty Python was a brilliant comedy team because they were all such great friends. It’s the same with us; the humor comes naturally from the camaraderie.”

And like Python, Loot does not feel dated, despite some topical references. Granted, it’s not as much of a risk to stage it today as it was in 1966. “In the ‘60s, bobbies used to stand in the back of the theater and harass the actors,” Balady said. Still, as Jacob Marshall, who plays Hal’s accomplice Dennis, notes, “Irreverence is always appealing, and the elements we use, like the naked corpse, are still hilarious.”

In other words, Orton lives, even if fondue and psychedelica have long become passé. In his tragically short career, he wrote some of the funniest plays in the latter half of the twentieth century. For those who loved What the Butler Saw, or just anyone who loves cheeky British comedy, UT’s Loot will certainly satisfy.