Follow the Bouncing Body

"One must shake the audience out of its expectations," bad-boy British playwright Joe Orton wrote. "They need not so much shocking, as surprising out of their seats." By setting Orton's Loot in a living room with walls of blues, greens and yellows so bold and primary that they make the place look like a kiddie-time playroom, Vicki Weathersby, director of Westheimer Art Bar & Theatre's energetic production, does the trick.

For though Loot, like all Orton's work, uses irreverence to debunk respectablemiddle-class pretensions about such institutions as the church, family, officialdom, sex and death, what was scandalous in the mid-'60s is fairly old-hat now. That not all relationships are heterosexual, that authority can be abusive, that there's psychopathology in everyday life: all these formerly inflammatory suggestions are now almost run-of-the-mill for late 20th-century theater (not to mention talk shows).

So instead of emphasizing Orton's important but hackneyed reveille, Weathersby, aided enormously by scenic designer Chase Staggs' funhouse parlor, plays up the Wildean one-liners, incessant door slams and physical comedy. She creates a romp that's slightly naughty and consistently uproarious.

The comic mayhem concerns a coffin, of all things. It seems the corpse it contains is a problem for charming bisexual Hal, a young bank robber who needs a place to stash his cash. Aided by his lover Dennis, who happens to be an undertaker, he dumps said corpse upside-down in a closet. That the corpse is his mum is one of life's little inconveniences. So is Fay, a sexy young nurse with money on her mind and a significant body count in her past; she prowls after them -- when, that is, she's not buttering up the well-off and honest bereft.

Truscott, an ominous police detective claiming to be from the water board, somehow knows all these machinations, but he can't prove anything. He spends his time menacing everybody and concocting evidence. It's no surprise that by play's end the guilty get away with murder in all sorts of ways and that the innocent take the fall. The fun is watching the dirty deeds -- and the corpse -- bounce around the stage.

Since Loot is a parody of detective stories, the actor playing brutal Truscott should make him some type of clown. In white face and ankle-high pants, Gregory Dean astounds as the megalomaniacal cop. He'll burst into a room and, in terrific John Cleese delivery, pronounce something ludicrous -- that reading is discouraged among police officers, for instance, because they try to keep paperwork to a minimum. Few could pull off lines such as, "Here is my home address -- I'm well-known there." Dean does, every time, making Truscott a ticking time bomb with a bent fuse.

Nearly as good is Anna Krejci as bombshell Fay, a scheming throwback to the 1940s who pouts, "My husbands died." In a white dress designed by Margaret Monostory to be more miniskirt than uniform, Krejci slinks across the stage, she slinks on chairs, she even manages to slink while standing. Would that her essence had a bit more of her Jean Harlow look.

Alex White needs much more work; his Hal is bland and doesn't convey the punk rogue who dreams of opening a first-class brothel with the loot.

Aaron Krohn's Dennis is less clumsy but still vapid, unconvincing as a young man of manipulative passion who swings both ways.

But these weak links, plus Todd Morton's occasionally intrusive light changes and Weathersby's awkward stare-blankly-at-the-audience stylistic flourishes, don't take much away from the hysterical antics. With mostly adept pacing, with intriguing unconventional casting that even adds a smattering of lesbianism to the proceedings and with Dean's aggressive buffoonery, Westheimer Art Bar & Theatre's production of Loot is a venture capital.

Loot runs through July 2 at Westheimer Art Bar & Theatre, 1102 1/2 Westheimer, 523-7217.


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