Steve Martin's adaptation of
Carl Sternheim's The Underpants
Camped out at the Performing Arts Center this week is the Stockton Theatre Program’s latest production, The Underpants. "Camp" may be the operative word here, because this is indeed a fun and zany play, with raucous laughter in the offing; but there is also a polish to this performance that leaves the audience assured that this is a production with serious undertones – not to say undergarments.
The play itself, just so you know, is a Steve Martin adaptation of German playwright Carl Sternheim’s Die Hose, written in 1911. Clearly, the original play was already pretty amusing (if not to say shocking for its era) and Martin has only needed to update some of the jokes and humor for today’s audience, along with making the language current, particularly in the deployment of nether region euphemisms. To give you a sense of what it is like, I would say that it combines the setting of Ibsen’s The Doll’s House, a site of oppressed womanhood, and mixes in characters from a Restoration Comedy to completely turn all assumptions on their head. The result is deliciously faux Fo (Dario).
Speaking of the setting, what a set! When the curtain rises – and they seem to have found the on/off switch for the curtain, as I don’t recall us ever using it before – I do believe you will gasp in amazement at what you see. The fact that a college theatre company could manufacture scenery that looks so attractive and so professional is a great tribute to our Theatre Program. Clearly, the guest Scenic Designer, Bart Healy from Rowan University, deserves most credit for his conception (his contribution makes this a veritable Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In), but kudos for executing the vision must go to the scenic crew, Joe Heim, Lane Jackson, Charles Pivnichny, and David Stratoti, and the scenic artists Katie Cook and Jamie Lokken (all under the enthusiastic direction of the always sunny Venustiano Borromeo). Dramaturge Brianne Theocharides deserves special plaudits for her work making everything seem to fit 1911.
Given that this is a play about clothing and adaptation (the tailor re-tailored, to borrow from Thomas Carlyle) we need to focus considerable attention on the costumes. These are wunderbar! At first, I wundered whether the adaptation would work since the undergarment malfunction being described was clearly one that was probably not very revealing (at least not what we have become accustomed to reading about in the supermarket tabloids associated with our current crop of show-not-tell stars). But pretty soon I was lost in the revelry and the costumes, which required leaving a lot to the imagination, functioned in a way that they would have done back in 1911. Since nothing was actually revealed, the imagination revealed all. I probably shouldn’t wax lyrical like a Scotsman imagining he’s a German philosopher besotted with clothing, but this was probably what made this 1911 costume malfunction so troubling compared to more recent incarnations. One can turn away from or switch off an image that has appeared before one; but an idea, a suggestion, can never be fully eradicated. So the costumes worked extremely well, and Ven’s creations®, with the assistance of Alexandra London and Anthony Mauriello, more than lived up to their starring role.
But what of the players? They are magnificent also. Master of ceremonies for the evening – well, Theo Master, at least – is Collin Costa. I don’t believe we have seen him before, and certainly not in a leading role. Aha! Shows how wrong I can be. According to the notes, Collin is returning to Stockton to complete his degree after having lived in New York City for six years. Many years ago, then, before I was assigned the role of theater reviewer, he performed in several of our productions. He also has worked in theater in New York and so really knows his stuff. Well, that explains why he is so damn good, and how he manages to anchor this production so well. If nothing else, then, you should go to this production to welcome Collin Costa back!
But when the water is rising, all the boats rise with it, and what we see from all the other actors is something that also matches their very best. Sarra Mazur, Lauren Jackson, and Lane Jackson are very familiar faces on our stage. Sarra does a great turn as Louise Mistress. Her facial expressions are killingly funny at times, and she plays the innocent and repressed Louise with great aplomb (ma cherie some mour, is what she invokes in the men around her). Lauren plays Gertrude Deuter, the upstairs neighbor, not quite with the energy of a Cosmo Kramer, but close, and with similar devastation to Louise’s mental wellbeing. Lane, as Klingle….hoff, is also extremely funny, squeezing every ounce of humor from the few lines he has, and making more than the most of his relatively short time on stage.
There are also some new faces: Tyler Riley is an excellent, foppish Versati, the poet who turns Louise’s misfortune into his muse; David Carey, as Cohen with a K, reminds me a little of Breckin Meyer, in Clueless, another very funny role, and so he is certainly a welcome addition to the Stockton stage; and, Matt Giacomelli, as Character X, gets the Kaiser roll for his brief but very noteworthy appearance at the end of the play. I am looking forward to seeing all three of these actors in future performances.
Once again, Pamela Hendrick has pulled together a wonderful production with her excellent direction. Pam more frequently gives us serious drama, allowing the students the space to take on these comedies, but she has shown here that she can direct comedy extremely well. Comedy needs a very light touch, and she seems to have provided that. Sound design from Physics professor Neil L. Aaronson, lighting design from our own Mark Mallett, and stage management form David Stratoti, were all very tight.
What does that leave? Well, apparently there was a fly problem on the set, and so a sticky rail was constructed to attract and catch said flies, and the man who was appointed to oversee the cleaning of this fly rail was Anthony Mauriello. The rest of the cast and crew, and ARHU in general are greatly indebted to Anthony for the tireless way in which he performed this arduous task. Without it the play could not have gone on.
Seriously, folks, you should see this play. You will enjoy it immensely; you will laugh, and you will be intellectually invigorated. Steve Martin is no slouch in the playwriting department. You should come out to cheer on your students and your colleagues as they perform at their very best.