Review: Laugh your pants off at the ‘The Underpants’

From left to right: Curt Simmons, Asa Sholdez, Renee Gilbert and James Lynch

The Phoenix Theatre opened their 11th season last Friday with a thought provoking political satire from early 20th century Germany. The Underpants is sure to make you laugh and (gasp!) might even make you think.

Louise Maske (Renée Gilbert) is unfulfilled. She stands by the window gazing out into the world dreaming of what might be. Newly married, she struggles with the tasks of homemaking, a role for which she has no passion and little aptitude. Fortunately? her nosy neighbor Gertrude (Melanie Calderwood) has taken her under her wing.

Her love for her husband is rapidly waning. Theo Maske (Asa Sholdez) has placed good German thrift before passion. To avoid having a child he deems too expensive, he has decided to withhold his conjugal love.

Louise finds herself trapped in a passionless marriage, excluded from much of the world by her gender – in a patriarchal society dominated by clumsy, oafish men who see her only as an object of desire. (Well, thank goodness we’ve moved past that, right?)

Remember back in 2004, the furor over Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction? When millions of American males rushed to their phones to ask their plaintive question – “Did you TiVo the game?” Oh sure, we’ve come along way. Believe that if you need to.

Louise Maske’s wardrobe malfunction is humdrum by modern standards, but in a time when the mere glimpse of a woman’s ankle was enough to elevate a straight man’s heart-rate, the sight of a women’s pantaloons falling to the ground during the King’s parade was bound to cause a stir.

Playwright Carl Sternheim’s depiction of flawed middle class values did not sit well with the German government. Die Hose, as The Underpants was known in Germany was quickly banned. Sternheim was a leading figure in the German Expressionist movement who, sidenote, did much to further awareness of the work of Franz Kafka.

The brilliant comic actor and writer Steve Martin penned an adaption of Die Hose in 2006, just two years after the Super Bowl incident – one wonders if that wasn’t the impetus for the adaption.

The entire cast is to be commended for their performances. The biggest laugh came with Gretchen’s entrance (Melanie Calderwood). Hats off to Elizabeth Shipman for her outstanding costume design. Was that an actual clarinet I spotted in the king’s helmet?

Renée Gilbert, Asa Sholdez, James Lynch and Curt Simmons all portrayed their characters expertly. In a satire like this one, no one comes out unscathed. The actors in turn each dutifully expose their foibles, much like the underpants, for all the world to see.

This isn’t slapstick or vaudeville, although there are some great physical gags. Renée Gilbert’s concealment of James Lynch’s character and Lynch’s drugged walk (a tribute to Steve Martin, I’m guessing) also brought down the house.

Much of the humor in The Underpants came from exposing the bourgeois sensibilities of the early 20th century. At times, there was as much nervous laughter In the crowd as guffaws. Perhaps the message of the play struck a little too close to home for some of us.

Phoenix has once again placed before you a delectable comic morsel. Take the time to support our region’s only community theatre company solely devoted to making you laugh.

Friday, Sept. 21 – Sunday, Oct. 14
Fridays & Saturdays at 7:30 p.m.
Sundays at 2 p.m.

9673 Firdale Ave.
(Firdale Village)

— By James Spangler

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