If you were attending theater regularly in the 1960s, '70s and '80s, you probably saw a lot of Joe Orton plays. His work gained acclaim from London's upper-crust theater aristocracy, but his social satire also made him a favorite of artistically minded participants in the counterculture.
He's not so much in fashion these days, and Jonathan Epstein thinks he knows why.
"Joe Orton says things that are prophetic," Epstein said. "He says the church is corrupt, the police are violent and corrupt, the medical establishment is murderous and corrupt."
In the '60s, when Orton was writing, those ideas were radical. In the next couple of decades, they were ideas that people could debate. Now, Epstein said, they're ideas that most people assume to be at least somewhat true.
Epstein teaches Shakespeare at the FSU/Asolo Conservatory for Actor Training, is directing the conservatory's production of "Loot," Orton's best-known play. It opens on New Year's Eve in the Cook Theatre the FSU Center for the Performing Arts.
If some of Orton's once-radical ideas have become familiar, Epstein said, his writing seems more distinctive now than ever.
"This is the last great hurrah of written English," Epstein said. "After Orton, you get into the spare language of people like Pinter."
It's not difficult to speak of Orton's writing in intellectual terms, but "Loot" is at heart a comedy, and a very funny one.
The story is about a gay couple (a radical thing in a 1960s play) who rob a bank and try to hide the money in the home of one of the men --- specifically, in the coffin of his recently deceased mother. There's no room in the coffin for both the money and the corpse, and through the play the corpse gets moved around the house after an inept detective comes on the scene. It turns out the mother's nurse is a serial killer who may be responsible for her death.
Orton's own life and death have now become more well-known than his plays, thanks in part to the Stephen Frears film "Prick Up Your Ears," which chronicled Orton's rise to fame and his murder. (His partner smashed his skull in with a hammer in 1967.)
Still, Epstein said, Orton's legacy is apparent.
"His situations are funny, his characters are funny, but at the same time it's quite poignant," Epstein said. "Orton's children are Monty Python and 'Breaking Bad,' where death and debauchery are juxtaposed with humor."
Details: Dec. 31-Jan 19, Cook Theatre at the FSU Center for the Performing Arts, 5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. Show times: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, 8 p.m. Wednesday-Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets: $29 evenings, $28 matinees. Dec. 31 performance is "pay what you can." Information: 941-351-8000, www.asolorep.org.
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919.