How do you get an audience to do what you want? How do you get them to suspend their disbelief, to believe in fairies and flashbacks, in otherworlds and acted emotions? How do you involve them in your performance games without disrupting the fragile construction of the play-world? These are questions that have troubled the theatrical discipline for centuries, but Butt Kapinski’s award-winning combination of plying your audience with alcohol, then unleashing a deranged detective with a lamp sticking out of his back to insult them, yields marvellous results. This eccentric one-woman (and an entire audience) show is a masterclass in both light-hearted entertainment and audience participation.
Even before entering the Old Fire Station theatre, I am stopped to be told a short list of instructions: pick any seat; do not move from it; “no seat is safe”. I take my seat in a room with very few chairs bunched up in a semi-circle formation in the middle of the theatre. Enter Butt Kapinski, immediately establishing dominance over the audience, bursting out from behind the curtain, darting in and out of the aisles, and lap- dancing with one viewer. The audience both knew what they were getting into, and could not possibly comprehend what was coming next.
Kapinski himself, played by Deanna Fleysher, is the heart of the show. The level of charisma Fleysher demonstrates in singlehandedly controlling her audience across an hour-long show is astounding. The character’s accent and lisp, replacing all r’s and l’s with w’s and distorting the vowels, never gets old. I would have deemed this stylistic decision to be a little on-the- nose, if it were not also cleverly incorporated into some killer lines: before the “film nwoiw” (noir) can began, Kapinski outlines some tropes and asks “are we all queer?” (clear) to which we all assented, naturally; one of the characters Kapinski brings into the narrative has some advice that “will change your wife” (life). The creaking of the rusty lamp above Kapinski’s head as he shoves it into an audience member’s face at various speeds never failed to crack me up. Butt Kapinski is an ingeniously odd creation.
But Kapinski himself is only half the act: “no seat is safe”. Butt Kapinski taps into that repressed desire within the audience when watching a highly formalised display such as a play: the desire to perform with the actors, to test the limits of that world. That lamp above Kapinski’s head is not just great to laugh at, but the perfect way to aid dialogue by shining it over an audience member, giving them a visible cue without having to say anything or break out of character. Fleysher’s audience conditioning and conveyance is so strong that everyone in the audience gets really invested in their roles disturbingly quickly, to the point that they were contributing to the show without cueing. One woman was given a microphone and told to provide appropriate music throughout the show: by the end of the show, she was inserting ironically seductive songs into the performance at opportune moments. Another woman was told to act as a police officer, but remained largely unused throughout the show. After the reveal of the murderer, however, she sprang up, arrested the perpetrator and fiercely told the audience member to “get down!”.
At the end of the show, Kapinski reveals that (shock horror), he was actually a woman the entire time, and Butt Kapinski but an act put on by a lonely American woman. Fleysher then sits down and asks an audience member to duct tape her to the chair, after which she then wishes for a hero like Butt Kapinski to rescue her. We did what any good audience would do: nothing. We sat and waited to see how long Fleysher would keep it up, before she said that she could go on like this all night. The joy of Butt Kapinski comes from being able to participate in the show, whilst deviating from what is expected of one, being in competition with the actress, whilst simultaneously aiding her craft.
I did not escape participation, either. If anything, Kapinski singled me out very early on, catching sight of me scribbling down notes, and forced me into more uncomfortable situations than the rest of the audience. On multiple occasions, he came over, grabbed my pen from out of my hand, and proceeded to scribble over my notes. One time, I was forced to improvise a poem about my abuse at the hands of my husband. Another time, I had to play a lesbian prostitute, make out with my friend, and then pose erotically with the other men whilst the women imitated male masturbation around me. Fleysher knows that her humour is amoral, and you know it is when contributing to it, yet she somehow makes it okay in this liminal space.
That said, this is the third murder mystery-related improvised comedy show I have seen in a row, and the third to fall slightly short of exploring everything that narrative structure has to offer. I was lucky(?) to have been picked to act on so many occasions, and I am glad that so many of the cues involved the whole audience, but there could have been more skits based on the murder mystery theme – Fleysher is so charismatic, I have no doubt she could have persisted for half an hour more. When I was given the instruction not to swap chairs with anyone, I was anticipating having to move more. Only a brave few had the opportunity to stray from the safe confines of their chair, meaning the distance between actor and audience was still very much perceptible.
Even with those small blemishes, Butt Kapinski remains an incredibly bold show and the closest a production has come to achieving a perfect mastery of audience participation, at least that I have seen. Although it at times made me very aware of the middle-aged audience I was in, with its saucily erotic jokes, Fleysher’s creation is a delight to watch and act alongside. Her command of the audience is indomitable, even when we tried our best to deviate from what was expected of us. Unfortunately, Butt Kapinski was only showing in Oxford for a single night, but the show is touring around London and Bristol, among others, and I would implore you to grab tickets if you get the chance. There’s nothing else quite like it.