During the original stage run of Joe Orton’s “Loot,” which features a dead mother as a plot device that spurs the action, the playwright’s mother died.
Orton went to Leicester for the funeral, then returned to London and the production. There is a scene where the dead mother’s false teeth are played like castanets. Backstage, Orton handed his mother’s real set to the actor Kenneth Cranham, who blanched.
“It’s obvious that you are not thinking of the events of the play in terms of reality,” said Orton, “if a thing affects you like that.”
Eight months later, Orton was dead at age 34, murdered by his lover.
It should be mentioned here that Orton’s plays are funny. Really funny. And that black comedy is the heart of the farce that Jonathan Fox is producing for Ensemble Theatre’s season-closing play. The anecdote of the teeth has been going around the company as they prepare for opening night. There are no plans to steal anybody’s teeth…yet.
Orton’s diaries and John Lahr’s biography “Prick Up Your Ears” are on the reading list, and the actors are settling into the Orton-verse.
“Orton created this world,” says cast member Heather Prete, “and it’s my privilege to be in it.”
That world features two inseparable friends, Hal (Kerby Joe Grubb) and Dennis (Wyatt Fenner), who rob a bank and hide the money in the coffin of their deceased mother. There’s also a murderous nurse, Fay (Heather Prete), Hal’s widowed father (David McCann), the psychopathic Inspector Truscott (Ned Schmidtke) and his assistant (Julian Rubel) who come to uncover the crime. The play was Orton’s first farce, and went through several disastrous productions and several rewrites to be hailed years later as one of his best.
Jonathan Fox says he had a difficult time casting, looking in both New York and Los Angeles for the kind of actors who ‘get’ Orton. But the criteria was also easy.
“They had to make me laugh,” he says. McCann not only made Fox laugh, but made their reader unable to feed the actor lines.
“I’ll probably never be that funny again,” jokes McCann.
Wyatt Fenner was also similarly successful and was immediately offered one of two parts that day.
Fox says of Prete that few actresses “could never feel comfortable in that world,” which is saucy, sexy and mischievous. “I do a lot of acting with my cleavage,” laughs Prete, though it’s obvious there’s more than that. Still, the comic universe is infecting the real world — as we chat outside the theater, stagehands walk past bearing a large, long, wooden prop. “That’s our coffin,” says Fox. As usual.
Orton ventured into farce with “Loot,” a genre that traditionally was bawdy but shallow, and brought much darker things. Though resolutely set in the ’60s (Fox briefly toyed with the idea of a contemporary setting), “Loot” still has the power to offend and shock, as Orton was always set on railing against hypocrisy. And hypocrisy is evergreen.
“We tweak a lot of people who don’t like being tweaked,” says McCann. “Orton was sort of screaming and yelling about a lot of things. Forty years on, some of that stuff is still being screamed about and worth screaming about.”
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; runs through June 27
Where: Alhecama Theatre, 914 Santa Barbara St.
Cost: $29 to $48
Information: (805) 965-5400 or ensembletheatre.com