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Dropping Frau 

Theater Review: The Underpants

Published October 4, 2006 at 8:32 p.m.

In 1911, the denizens of Deutschland had decades to go before Victoria's Secret catalogs and the Internet would give them limitless access to images of ladies in their lingerie. A public glimpse of pantaloon, when even the ankle was considered verboten? Why, this was more than most hormonally charged Herren could imagine! So Carl Sternheim's play Die Hose (The Underpants), about the hilarious complications that ensue from an accidental moment of drawer-dropping, was considered far too racy for the stuffy stage of the decaying German Empire.

Sternheim aspired to be his country's Molière, using satire to point out pretense and hypocrisy, especially among the complacent middle classes. But the half-Jewish playwright wasn't kosher with the Kaiser, and his works were kaput in his homeland once the Nazis took power. Sternheim lived much of his life in exile and died in Belgium during the Second World War.

Nearly a century after The Underpants first dropped, what was once a rebellious and risqué social satire now seems merely a delightfully saucy farce. Comedian Steve Martin adapted Sternheim's banned-in-Berlin gem for an off-Broadway venue in 2002. In Burlington, the University of Vermont Theatre Department has unbuttoned its breeches for a mostly successful romp through the wild-and-crazy Sternheim-Martin minefield of innuendo and double entendre.

Louise Maske is the young Dusseldorf hausfrau whose knickers untwist at a most inopportune moment: just as the king passes in a public parade. The two-second wardrobe malfunction enrages her stolid husband, Theo. The mid-level bureaucrat fears his wife's indiscretion will discredit him and imperil his career. "Don't underestimate the power of a glimpse of lingerie," he warns her.

But Theo's job is not at risk; his marriage is. Inspired by the sneak peek of "paradise" in the park, men vie to rent the spare room in the Maskes' apartment. They also compete for Louise's affections, right under her clueless husband's nose. The poet Versati and the barber Cohen are so eager to hang around Louise that they agree to divide the room in two, each paying full rent.

Randy upstairs neighbor Gertrude encourages Louise to enjoy the ardor she has engendered. She suggests an affair with the debonair Versati, who is writing Louise florid verse at a breakneck pace. Pragmatic Theo is keeping it zipped until the couple can afford to have a baby. "You deserve something in you at night besides sauerkraut," Gertrude growls. She buys silk to make Louise a special pair of seduction undies.

Neglected by her husband, Louise gradually warms to the attention she gets as a result of her moment in the sun. Her marriage to Theo lacks the passion she's unwittingly aroused in strangers. As it plays out, the men's passions are mostly manifestations of self-absorption that have little to do with Louise herself. But when her 15 minutes of fame are over, Sternheim's heroine is wiser and happier, having learned a little about men and a lot about herself.

Martin's adaptation of The Underpants preserves the period setting and characters. He has altered a few passages of action, such as omitting a moment when Theo bangs his wife's head against the table. (Funny then, felony now.) Martin describes Sternheim's play as "ribald, satirical, self-referential and quirky." The modern script certainly captures this spirit with fresh and frisky dialogue. It's hard to believe that Martin the playwright is really the same guy who, as King Tut in 1978, rhymed "Born in Arizona / Moved to Babylonia / Had a condo made of stone-a" while wearing a gold lamé diaper on his head.

Although farce looks like all froth and fun on the surface, it demands a lot from actors: high energy, brisk banter and sharp delineation of character. In the UVM production, director Sarah E. Carleton led her team of college thespians in a spirited effort. The pacing occasionally lagged, and some dialogue was lost to the rafters and to poor vocal projection. The quality of the acting varied substantially.

But one actor's performance alone was worth the price of admission. Greg Perkins was perfection as the proudly unpublished poet Versati. He cut a sidesplitting swath across the stage - from his delicate hula hands to the coquettish arch of his brow; from his precisely elaborated diction to his lithely exaggerated gait. His voice nearly choked with breathless passion as Versati recited purple verse to his muse, Louise. Perkins played the part like a colorized silent film star, stepping out of the celluloid and bringing the genre's gestures and mannerisms to life.

Although no one matched Perkins' intensity, both women portrayed their characters with relish. Sabrina Sydnor embodied Louise's baby-faced, apple-cheeked innocence. She brought charm and believability to the character's subtle transition from flustered, cloistered housewife to slightly freer and more confident Frau. Suz Felker channeled Mae West as the lusty, busty Gertrude, who has appointed herself Louise's fairy godmother of getting laid. She put plenty of "gr-r-r" in her growling and grinding. Sydnor and Felker worked well together, especially in the hilarious scene where Gertrude measures Louise for her new unmentionables.

As Theo, Harry McEnerny V was most effective when tossing off the character's gruffly chauvinistic comments and conveying his simplistic worldview. He had the play's toughest task: portraying a dull-witted character while maintaining quick-witted energy as an actor. Better direction might have helped him succeed more consistently. Michael Rushia's performance as Cohen, by contrast, brought nothing stylized, quirky or even remotely funny to his role. He was simply peevish and whiny.

Luckily, the technical elements were polished and had a sunny visual appeal that gave the storytelling a lift. Scenic designer Jeff Modereger brought a Dusseldorf street scene inside the Maskes' apartment. The entire back wall featured a gorgeous perspective drawing of an early-20th-century European cityscape, reminiscent of the watercolor-and-ink renderings of Paris that artists sell along the Seine. A line of verdant linden trees by a boulevard represented the scene of the trou-dropping crime. High above the stage, hung on clotheslines, paper cutouts of bloomers fluttered delicately.

Three windows pierced the wall. Lighting designer John B. Forbes bathed the space beyond them in a sublime cerulean blue. A fire-escape staircase allowed Gertrude to make many of her entrances from the upstairs apartment through the windows - a perfectly staged detail for a nosy neighbor.

Along with sets and lights, costumes have been a consistent strength of recent UVM productions. Designer Emily Dorwart played with a richly saturated palette: deep magenta, mustard and emerald for the women's dirndl skirts, for example. But the most dashing outfit went to Versati. His costume screamed "daft dandy": dramatic navy tails, trimmed in powder-blue fringe with a matching vest and ascot, and white spats covering his shoes.

The Underpants is a delightful play, one that can make you contemplate weighty issues such as the battle between the sexes and the fleeting nature of fame. Or not-so-weighty ones such as "Thank God we no longer have to wear knickers past our knees!" Either way, you're guaranteed to do more smiling and laughing than thinking. Sometimes it's hard to argue with that.

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Elisabeth Crean


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