FOLLOWING October’s incredible season opener Kiss of the Spiderwoman, our friends at Collective Face Theatre Ensemble are ready to make sides split and panties drop!
Originally written in 1910 by German playwright Carl Sternheim, The Underpants was adapted by the one and only Steve Martin (yep, that’s the one) in 2002; with the actor/writer/banjoist’s signature absurdist, hammy touch, this season’s comedy is definitely one to catch.
Set in the Prussian Kingdom at the turn of the 20th century, “It’s a lot of door-slamming, intrigue kind of play,” explains director David I.L. Poole.
In The Underpants, audiences meet Louise Maske (played by Vanessa Stipkovits) and husband Theo Maske (Dennis Lopez), a middle-level clerk. While attending a parade for the king, Louise’s bloomers accidentally fall to the ground in front of everyone.
While Louise waves it off, insisting the crowd had their eyes on the actual parade, Theo is humiliated.
The scandalous turn of events is never actually shown, but it sets the trajectory for this uproariously hysterical farce.
The Maskes are struggling to make ends meet; to make a little money, they rent out a room in their home. When two gentlemen, obsessed with Louise since the parade incident, express interest in the room, hilarity and sharply-written social satire inevitably ensue.
“It’s a really interesting play, and that’s why I think it was such a cool idea that Steve Martin did the adaptation,” says Poole. “He took the original German and adapted it—and the thing about Steve Martin that people may not know is that the man is a frigging genius! He’s really brilliant, he’s a brilliant writer, and so when he adapted this, I thought it was interesting; it’s got his humor in it, but it’s also very intelligent.”
Poole advises that, in true Martin fashion, there’s a surprise at the end, but we’ll hold back on spoilers for now—ya gotta see it for yourself.
“The writing is just so well-crafted, and so specific, and ingenious,” Poole admires. “It’s a perfectly well-made play; it all takes place in one location in that standard of well-made plays.
“Also, it’s contemporary enough for our audiences now; period pieces tend to be a bit stodgy and old-fashioned, so when I came across this play, I was like, ‘Hmm—interesting. Steve Martin, who’s very contemporary, does an adaption of this play that’s in the classical canon. Let’s see what we can do with it.’”
Poole says the piece is also very feminist, which interested him due to the time period.
“It’s talking a lot about women’s independence and the role of a woman in society,” he elaborates. “Theo is very much about order and numbers and being able to afford everything, and the way he feels, a woman’s place is in the kitchen and in the home. His wife being young also gains her independence; she puts her foot down in this play, and she finally understands the power of her femininity.”
Watch for a standout performance from Lynita Spivey as the Maske’s upstairs neighbor Gertrude, who’s living vicariously through Louise’s hijinks. As an outside observer, Gertrude is pretty progressive—while she’s certainly nosy and often butting into the Maske’s business, she also asks important questions of Louise regarding her relationship with her husband, showing Louise that she can find a better man with whom to build a life.
The Underpants is entirely set in the Maske’s apartment; while that may sound like a simple set, capturing the time period was a welcome challenge for the Collective Face team. With a staircase, two bedrooms, a dining room area, a parlor, and a kitchen, it’s a lavish stage into which a lot of hard work was poured.
“We spent a lot of time on this kitchen,” says Poole, “because it has to have what appears to be a working stove, refrigerator—well, icebox in that period—and a sink that works.”
Trying to find period-appropriate appliances was a struggle, so the crew opted to make them by hand instead.
The icebox was crafted from a plastic tub, wood, and a door.
“We made this beautiful stove everyone’s gaga over!” Poole says excitedly. “It appears to be a ceramic tiled, coal-burning stove. It’s ultimately made out of a box with a lot of molding and tile cornels. When you see it, you really think it’s cast iron.”
“Also, a challenge was for the actors to understand how to turn on the stove,” Poole notes. “In this play, you have to put coal in the stove, set it on fire—all this stuff has to be done that’s very different than what we’re used to.”
Difference and lack of certain technology is a key element in the play’s narrative.
“It’s interesting how in this play, they don’t have telephones, and how fast rumors still spread through the town,” Poole says.
The cast is comprised of familiar faces around town on the theater and comedy scene.
“I tried to get the best comedians I could find in this play,” says Poole. “Lynita Spivey and Justin Kent are both Odd Lot-ers, Vanessa Stipkovits, who helps run the board for Odd Lot, has done a lot of Collective Face shows and was in Boeing, Boeing. Dennis Lopez, who’s playing Theo, does a lot of standup at Chuck’s, and Bill Cooper is another standup guy.”
With so many funnymen and women, it’s been tough to hold in the chuckles during rehearsal.
“Peter Brook, who was one of the world’s best directors, wrote this book that anyone who’s ever taken a directing class has read, The Empty Space,” says Poole.
“He described how you should direct a comedy and says, unlike a drama, in comedy, the rehearsal room should be serious, and there shouldn’t be any laughter so it doesn’t spoil the joke and make the actors expect to get that laugh. He says you do quite the opposite when you do a drama. Me and stage manager Dandy [Barrett], we’re just trying to be very serious and not laugh, so that when we do this, the laughter will erupt, and it’ll be a grand ol’ time!”
Preceding the dark classic Death of a Salesman, coming up in February, The Underpants was the perfect pick for this season’s farce.
“I try to balance the season,” says Poole. “We talk about bigger issues that are trending at that time, and what a perfect play to talk about roles of society and gender roles.”
And while there are plenty of laughs, Poole says Martin’s adaptation offers great insight for audiences, as well.
“It’s an evening of entertainment, for sure,” he says, “but you learn a little about lessons about life and how to deal in relationships. I think that’s what you come away with at the end of the play: there’s a twinge of a lesson learned.”