"Was your stepmother aware of your love for your father?" demands the leering psychiatrist.
"I lived in a normal family," protests his unwilling patient. "I had no love for my father!"
Welcome to the wicked, barbed-wire satire of Joe Orton, whose brilliant comedy "What the Butler Saw" puts a post-Freudian spin on sophisticated wit worthy of Oscar Wilde.
Ensemble Theatre Company's lively staging proves worthy of the precision timing and razor-sharp performances required for Orton's particularly taxing farce. While a few opening night lapses showed the need for some settling in, it's clear director Robert Grande-Weiss and his talented cast have a solid grip on the piece.
Most important, they have accurately captured the cynical context of Orton's worldview, in which the only genuine impulses are greed and lust--morality and human values are simply hypocritical impediments to gratification.
The show's increasingly tangled plot stems from the ill-fated attempts by Dr. Prentice (Charles de L'Arbre), the lecherous head of a lunatic asylum, to seduce his would-be secretary Miss Barclay (Emma-Jane Huerta) during an interview. Having persuaded her to remove her clothes for a "routine" medical examination, he is interrupted by the unexpected arrival of his nymphomaniac wife (Gretchen Evans), followed by the pompous examining psychiatrist (Christopher Vore) representing the government--"Your immediate superiors in madness," he declares huffily.
Seeking to explain away the naked Miss Barclay as a patient, Dr. Prentice sets in motion a convoluted series of mistaken identities and provocative situations, which also entangle a larcenous, blackmailing bellhop (Devin Scott) and a thick-headed policeman (Ron Scala) investigating--of all things--the missing parts from an exploded statue of Winston Churchill.
The good doctor's ingenuity is taxed to the limit as he even forces Miss Barclay and the bellhop into gender-switching disguises.
"We must tell the truth!" wails the hapless Miss Barclay.
"That's a thoroughly defeatist attitude," Prentice counters.
While we can't help wishing for more outright cunning in de L'Arbre's characterization of the doctor, Evans' performance as his meddling wife never fails to delight with its quirky inflections. Huerta and Scala supply much of the outright physical comedy, while Scott's hilarious rendition of a woman is downright masterful. Vore skillfully navigates the tongue-twisting rapids in some of the play's most complicated speeches.
Though briskly paced, the piece occasionally stumbles on a misplaced commitment to the realistic beats of natural dialogue. Quite unnecessary--people don't converse in repartee this perfectly loony, so why bother making it seem as if they do?
As Orton himself put it, "lunatics have to be melodramatic. The subtleties of drama are wasted on them."
* WHAT: "What the Butler Saw"
* WHEN: Through Aug. 14, Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 7; Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. on July 17 and Aug. 7.
* WHERE: Alhecama Theatre, 914 State St., Santa Barbara.
* HOW MUCH: $14-$16.
* FYI: For reservations or further information, call (805) 962-8606.