The Erpingham Camp

Harvard Theater

By Joe Orton

Harvard-Radcliffe Summer Theatre

"With madness, as with vomit, it's the passer-by who receives the inconvenience," says a character in Joe Orton's one-act satire The Erpingham Camp. No doubt about it, playwright Joe Orton was a great, corrosive farcist. With such devilish lines, he's been pricking up everyone's ears for the past two decades, and it's been audiences who've felt the inconvenience of his caustic, mad wit. He was so talented, even the cheeky, musical imps of the perverse, The Beatles, had Orton working on an original screenplay when he was bludgeoned to death by his homosexual lover Kenneth Halliwell.

While the British movie, Prick Up Your Ears, has done much to introduce Orton to the U.S., it's only been in the last two years that his plays have been produced in America. There was a successful run of Loot off-Broadway this past year, and his acclaimed masterpiece, What the Butler Saw, has enjoyed stage-time in Harvard's own Loeb Ex and in New Hampshire. Now Bostonians can delight in a short one-act Orton gem, The Erpingham Camp, done with great energy and skill by Harvard/Radcliffe Summer Theatre.

The Erpingham Camp is a biting comic-book political satire where the characters have no character, and are hardly more than grotesques. Orton populates his play with social types who cover the entire political spectrum. What makes Orton's satire so savage is that his grotesques manage to seem "real." That "real" people can be the way Orton portrays them is both disturbing and awfully hard to accept.

Erpingham (John Claflin) is the name of the director of a chain of British holiday camps, an upper crust, uptight version of Club Med. He is the Great Oppressor/Dictator/Imperialist, demanding religiously fanatic devotion and obeisance from his workers and campers while envisioning a world-spanding empire of holiday camps. He declares off-handedly that his campers don't have rights, only privileges--even food is a privilege.

This week's guests include Mr. and Mrs. Righteous Proletariat, Ken (Daniel Luke Zelman) and Eileen (Heather Gunn), as well as Mr. M.B.A. and Mrs. Happiness-is-a-BMW, Ted (Peter Ocko) and Lou (Nicole Galland). With such contrasting types in one place, something is rotten in the camp of Erpingham.

During the nightly entertainment show run by Head Sycophant, Chief Redcoat Riley (Peter Becker), Ken picks a fight with the less-than-tactful Riley for hitting his pregnant wife, causing general mayhem in the process. Erpingham, who stands for no such disturbances, promptly refuses to feed his campers and locks them within the grounds. In the classic rags-to-riches mode, Ken, with some help from Ted, leads a revolution against the director, and what follows is typically brutal Orton entropy.

Although Orton is one of the subtlest of recent satirists, he cannot help hammering in some of his points. He uses this campy (excuse the pun) situation to mock post-World War political dynamics. Scenes smack with references to the French Revolution and the civil war in Ireland. While Erpingham views a crowd of insurgent campers, "La Marseillaise" can be heard from a distance. OK, Joe, I get the hint. The campers follow the typical revolutionary pattern: frustrated by their efforts at peaceful reform, the rabble are instigated to get violent to the point of complete overthrow of the "government."

The slam-on-the-brakes ending further unsettles the audience. Orton is too clever to present a simplistic, Marxist denouement where the proles emerge victorious. Instead, when the campers achieve their victory, they, including fireball Kenny, are unwilling to face up to what they did. The Erpingham insurgents begin to praise their own dictator; "revolution" accomplished nothing. They are back to square one as is the audience. The audience must be wondering who or what to believe in, and Orton's nihilism offers little comfort.

Farce makes such weighty points through belly-aching humor, a point director Chad Raphael well understands. His stagings are often brilliantly choreographed, bringing out the full chaotic energy of the work. The nightclub entertainment scene metamorphoses into a very credible three-ring circus complete with a strong man in a leopard skin (Ken), scantily-clad female (Lisa Lindley), fat lady (Eileen), can-can dancer (Ted), and Elvis impersonator (Donal Logue)--a deliriously wild spectacle that is one of this show's unforgettable moments. In this scene, Raphael also reminds us of Orton's message that we are all guests in this camp by having the two couples start off sitting in the audience. Wisely, Raphael keeps the pace fast and furious and never lets the audience off this roller coaster ride of a show.

For the most part, Raphael elicits terrific performances from his no-holds-barred cast. Becker, Ocko, and Galland are all wonderfully loony tune and daffy in their roles, hamming it up to the hilt yet without excess. And Lindley, Logue and Linus Gelber are solid in their supporting roles as Erpingham sidekicks. The two best performances are those of Zelman and Gunn. In particular, Zelman plays Kenny with a hilarious bravado that energizes the entire show. It is in his scenes that The Erpingham Camp shifts into full farce flight.

Only Claflin's performance was problematic. Though he was certainly solid and has good comic timing, his understated performance sometimes prevented scenes from reaching their full potential energy.

Too often, when confronted with a difficult satire, the actors, director, and crew go for the humor and ignore the bite or vice versa. But here is a complete farce that both delights and disturbs. Don't miss this opportunity to see a play by a too-rarely-produced playwright done without compromise.