“I’m from the gutter and don’t you ever forget it,” British playwright Joe Orton once said, “because I won’t.”
Soulpepper’s current production of Orton’s Loot might fare better with more gutter and less humourless naturalism. Although Orton himself insisted that Loot must be “directed and acted perfectly seriously or it will fail” director Jim Warren seems to have taken this advice a tad too seriously. Warren considers this dark comedy his favourite Orton piece because he sees it as “dirtier and angrier” than the others. Unfortunately the dirt and the hostility are played without enough gritty comic stereotypes necessary to give energy to this macabre little homo-inflected farce.
The characters of Hal (played by Matthew Edison) and Dennis (Jonathan Watton) lack the essential sexual energy that is so subtly written into the script. When Hal exclaims that prison might make him “permanently bent” and continually calls Dennis “baby” the audience is confronted with an utter lack of the kind of lustful vigour that should infuse every moment these two dashing young men share onstage. At one point, over Hal’s mother’s coffin, these bosom buddies turn their faces toward each other for a split second, revealing the worst kind of tease. They should have shared a rough and ready kiss. But alas, they turn away.
Orton’s dramaturgy was not interested in teasing the audience. It was more concerned with hitting them over the head with a barrage of rapid-fire, ribald comedy that attacked conservative social views. A very delicate balance of comic stock characterization and slight naturalism could have been blended to create the kind of wonderfully cock-teasing characters Orton was undoubtedly very familiar with and fond of during his lifetime.
Personal Ortonian quips such as, “The kind of people who always go on about whether a thing is in good taste invariably have bad taste,” and, “The humble and meek are thirsting for blood,” position Orton’s wit within a kind of exaggerated Wildean universe where anything goes and nothing is sacred. The Soulpepper production, although graced by magnificent wallpaper (set design by Sue Lepage), needs more dimension than home décor and prop corpses with more weight to make them a little more cumbersome, comic and outrageously believable.
Nicola Underhay’s Fay falls prey to a similar one dimensionality as she plays with sexual innuendo all too infrequently and seems afraid to pose as the “dumb blonde” stereotype Orton is getting at. Half-witted bleached bombshells prove to be shrewd businesswomen in Orton’s world, and need to be presented as somewhat ditzy in order to make the comedy ripple. Oliver Dennis as McLeavy tries to play the bewildered widower with comic panache, but is up against far too much pseudo-naturalistic acting for it to gel properly within this generally slow moving production. Similarly Michael Hanrahan’s Truscott as the detective-cum-waterworks inspector attempts broad comedy but is bogged down by slow pacing and cumbersome back-and-forth blocking.
Early performances received rave review from a variety of Toronto critics and the production is worth seeing for Orton’s savage wit and Lepage’s vintage wallpaper alone. But early in the second week any comedy apparent to opening night audiences seemed to have lost its power, if it was ever there. This is a terribly “straight” production of an incredibly queer play. With any luck the boys will brush up on homoerotic energy and cock-teasing antics over the remainder of the run, playing in repertory until Sat, Aug 1 alongside the mesmerizing Awake and Sing at the Young Centre.