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LOOT

Written by Joe Orton

Directed by Andrei Belgrader

Set designed by Anita Stewart

With Thomas Derrah, Sean Dugan, Alvin Epstein, Jeremy Geidt, Laurie Williams

Until March 15, 2000

I dearly wish I was able to see Loot the way Joe Orton intended it to be seen. Not to say that there are any textual changes; no, the A.R.T. production is completely -- perhaps even slavishly -- faithful. Usually, it is nice to recognize the respect to classical works; the only problem here is that Loot is not a classical work, it’s an angry and provocative black comedy, clearly written as a direct response to the time period when it was written, mercilessly skewering the social institutions. That was back in 1966; times have changed, and what was bold and daring then merely creates a feeling of blasÉ detachment.

This doesn’t have to be so, of course: Loot, I’m convinced, still has the power to make us laugh and squirm in our seats. But as it is squarely set in a world and time period very different from our own (1966 Britain, Catholic, affluent, and still strangely naive); the recognition that the play is all about us is lost.

There are, roughly speaking, two ways to direct period plays. One is to take the audience and put it in the play’s world, and another is to take the play and put it into the audience’s world (just compare, for example, two film versions of Romeo and Juliet: the one directed by Franco Zeffirelli, utilizing the first approach, and the one directed by Baz Luhrmann, clearly aiming for second one). Loot really does neither: there’s no feeling that its scathing satire applies even today, but there’s no transporting experience, either.

The scathing satire is in the script, of course; after all, Loot is a story about a couple of young enterprising bank robbers hiding their loot in the coffin of a recently dead elderly lady, hiding the body elsewhere. Add into the mix the lady’s straight-laced husband, her conniving nurse, and the deadpan police inspector, who keeps insisting that he is really from the Waterworks department. What follows is two hours of slapstick action, mostly involving putting the dead body into various comic situations.

The dead body itself is certainly up to task; the only time when Loot is irresistibly hilarious is when this corpse starts to fall out of the closet, where it’s hidden: it does so not in one undignified whoomp, but step by step, limbs dangling, stretching the gag until it becomes supremely funny.

The live actors are all fine (Thomas Derrah as a desolate young scoundrel is particularly noteworthy; even when he does nothing, he’s funny), but they cannot escape the feeling of going through motions: there’s no evident spontaneity, and most of them appear vaguely bored with the proceedings.

What’s particularly regrettable is the fact that Loot doesn’t aspire to actually say anything, but instead aims to merely shock the audience (a much less lofty goal). These shocks, too, are mostly of the same variety (dead body gets abused), and, while the outrageousness is increasing, it soon starts to feel desperate. We have all seen this kind of humor before; it might have been innovative thirty years ago, but now it feels dated.

This is also due to the fact that Loot is such a remote spectacle: everything that is really interesting about the play is downplayed to the point where it is lost. A scene which has the potential to be truly effective (the sudden outbreak of police brutality at the end of Act I), is played for laughs; and the finale, when one of the characters becomes an almost tragic figure, feels like a disposable plot twist.

Loot still has its moments, from Jeremy Geidt’s intentionally flat (and very funny) line deliveries, to Laurie Williams’ tremulous violin-accompanied confession, tender and sarcastic at the same time. But directing a Joe Orton play like it were Chekhov, with a ultra-realistic set and generally subdued air, really doesn’t pay off: the outrageousness is lost, and Loot, for most of its running time, ends up being merely vaguely amusing.