Monday, February 13, 2012
Theater review: The Underpants at Trinity Onstage Theater in Bedford
An easy evening of laughter is a pretty good thing.
It was 1911 Germany and playwright Caro Sternheim certainly had some easy pickings with which to satirize – Europe was teetering on the edge of the world's biggest war, class distinction was rearing its ugly head, and women, though still ensconced in full length, restrictive attire, were budding the blossoms of feminism which would serve them well only a few short years later. Ten years into the Edwardian Age, Sternheim mirrored his fellowman's societal foibles with his satirical play Die Hose. Almost 100 years later, fellow satirist Steve Martin adapted the play "not ... as historical artifact" but to emphasize relatable themes audiences would still find funny today.
Farce is defined as "a style of comic drama in which authority, order and morality are at risk, and ordinary people get caught up in extraordinary events." ONSTAGE in Bedford took Martin's adaptation "at its word" and played the many laughs for all their worth. There were, however, nuances in this farce not about absurd characterizations but about everyday people in absurd situations, and that was the element missing.
The Underpants (playing at ONSTAGE Trinity Arts Theater through February 26) concerns an unfortunate accident with ill-fitting lingerie, the perceived scandal it causes, and conformity versus an underlying fascination with fame. In Dusseldorf Germany of 1910, Louise Maske has literally dropped her drawers in the middle of town, coinciding with the passing of the king. Her middle class civil servant, bourgeois wanna-be husband Theo, has all the charm of a wart hog, swallowed up in chauvinism and puritanical self-importance. He is repulsed by Louise's social faux pas and confines her to the house until she can rectify the situation. Enter three room renters, two of whom have witnessed the "incident," and have more than mere lodging on their minds. The renters awaken something sexually in Louise. Add a snoopy upstairs neighbor and a surprise guest ending and all the ingredients are there for a comedy smorgasbord.
Without reading the original play it was pretty apparent where Sternheim left off and Steve Martin came in. Martin's personality fairly oozed off the stage with one-liners. There were numerous sexual double entendres such as "that will raise his flag higher and higher" or "I'll slip in and out without you knowing it." Gender conventions were on high with Theo's "I work seven hours a day and then I'm tired" and "Only men should have affairs". Both Sternheim and Martin dipped their toes into the already present subversions of Germany, 1910. One of the renters, Jewish Benjamin Cohen, quickly tells the suspecting Theo that "it's Cohen with a K," and is almost outed by stating "..., whether or not it's kosher." My favorite line was subtly stated, when one of the characters says something about "a play by Sternheim ... but they'll wait `til it's adapted"!
Director Lisa Cotie understood the play's characters, but mainly as we might judge them through current eyes. Had she kept Sternheim's world view and guided her actors accordingly, the farce would have been richer and more developed. Too many times the actors played the scene, the situation, rather than the person. There was lots of busyness – running around and the typical slamming of doors - but the need for laughs took precedence over the social commentary.
Part of the problem lay in the design of the set, properties and costumes. Visually, simplicity and order had its place but if Theo thought himself a man of some means and his home his domain, it should look it.
By the script, he does alright financially, they eat well, but the set designed by Robert Dennard was a mish-mash of living room furniture pieces and framed pictures not of the period. The kitchen also was off period and floored with black and white "tiles" not yet seen in the homes of 1910. Deborah Dennard's properties rarely fit the time period or use, with a porcelain pitcher for coffee pot, mugs for cups and saucers, a modern manila folder and ballpoint pen. I did love her photograph of the king on the wall with German flags underneath as any good government employee would have in his home.
Women's costumes remained fairly contemporary with the exception of hem lengths and a few pieces that leaned towards the period such as fitted jackets with narrower skirts. Designer Carol Anderson found appropriate women's clunky high heeled shoes, in vogue during that time with the introduction of the Tango. The women characters' wigs were a few years premature. The Gibson Girl up do with big hats was still in fashion and bobs and short hair styles came into fashion later. The men's suits were also pulled from modern stock. Missing were the tall, stiff shirt collars, wide ties, wide jacket lapels and cuffed trousers. While a top hat would be correct for an older gentleman, Theo would more likely have worn a bowler to define his youth and status.
Lighting design by Lisa Cotie was strictly generic but Alex Krus' sound design was humorous and all Germanic with the proverbial Viking-helmeted woman pre-show singing and Wagnerian operas at intermission.
As directed, the seven actors of The Underpants played the farce accordingly. Jill Ethridge presented Louise as the expected naïve young wife, but too easily shifted to sexual vamp with all her suitors' advances. Newly found sensations and emotions, rising from the attention, weren't clearly defined, making her loss of that "celebrity" a bit weak and unfocused. Her sexiness came across as mock theatrical and Ethridge needed more strength of purpose as Louise. Alex Krus, on the other hand, was all strength as Theo, but it stemmed more from his own physicality than his characterization. Playing it big and boisterous was good for laughs (or boos, as he readily received) but Theo's personality as the chauvinist, racist pig he is wasn't fully developed. The laughter came more from his actions than his character's true nature and comeuppance.
Sherry Etzel's voyeuristic Gertrude Deuter, the upstairs neighbor, had the powerful stage presence necessary for this farce. She rightfully portrayed a woman with plans and desires of her own who had lived her sexual life vicariously through others. Hers was the correct blend of turn of the century dutiful woman and rising feminist of the era to come.
The first of the renters, Frank Versati, is a poet whose words now flow for the lovely Louise. As played by Michael Speck however, he was too foppish to make such rampant sexual desires believable. In going for artistic "fragility," Versati possessed little to awaken Louise's libido, and his red lace parasol didn't help matters.
Benjamin Cohen, played by Rick Powers, was the stereotypical nebbish Jew, all bent knees and apologetic lowered eyes. While a fine characterization for Motel in Fiddler on the Roof, in this play he was too milk toast with too evasive a personality, though in a scene where he had few lines Powers was quietly hilarious as he pantomimed to the fake bird in the cage, trying to get it to talk.
Ken Orman's role as Klinglehoff was made difficult by the fact that for Act I and into Act II, his part consisted of entering, saying a few words at the door, and exiting, doing this at least three times before he was truly involved in a scene. With that challenge, his character had to be developed in a matter of minutes rather than through the course of the play. Orman's characterization was rushed, pushed, and finally totally unintelligible when he finally got a good laugh line. He also had to play older than his age which read harshly in such close proximity to the audience.
In possibly the smallest role he's had in awhile, David H.M. Lambert played the oft-mentioned King who ends the play with his entrance and, no spoiler here, predictable pronouncement. Lambert was all regal, with satin chest sash, shiny shoes and mischievous wink. A nice way to close the show.
The Underpants is a farce, and farce can be hard to pull off, even with the best of scripts and direction. It is difficult to take a 21st century audience and make them believe a glimpse or two of knee-high bloomers is titillating much less shocking. Maybe that is why ONSTAGE in Bedford went strictly for the laughs. The audience howled and guffawed with most every line, so the theatre obviously knows its subscribers and patrons. And an easy evening of laughter is a pretty good thing these days I would say.
Pegasus News Content partner - John Garcia's The Column
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