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Living - January 23, 2009

'Underpants' - a revealing look at society

Steve Martin's adaptation of 1910 comedy filled with subtle insights

by Geoff Gillette

It's been said that the best jokes contain a kernel of truth. That said, there are kernels of truth liberally sprinkled throughout "The Underpants," the latest effort from Role Players Ensemble Theatre.

A play originally written by Carl Sternheim in 1910 and adapted by comedian Steve Martin, "The Underpants" shows the silliness of cultural mores and the hypocrisy of those who view such things in black and white terms.

Taking place within the confines of the small home of Theo and Louise Maske, the show focuses on a simple wardrobe malfunction and the far-reaching consequences it brings.

While Theo and Louise (Eddie Peabody and Xanadu Bruggers) are attending a parade she experiences an unfortunate mishap where her underpants accidentally slip off and fall to the ground.

Theo, a government clerk, believes his life may have come to an end as a result of the event, while Louise doesn't think anyone even saw it, as the King was going by at the time.

The couple soon find themselves bombarded by men looking to rent the empty room. First comes Versati (Craig Eychner), a nobleman, poet and dandy who is besotted with Louise and her daring exposure. Then comes Cohen (Michael Sally), a sickly Jewish man also suddenly in love.

Louise seeks advice on how to deal with these romantic entanglements from Gertrude (Bonnie DeChant), the upstairs neighbor. Lacking attention from her husband, and at the urging of Gertrude, Louise experiences empowerment from all this attention and a sexual awakening.

All members of the cast work well in giving the double entendres and innuendoes associated with "The Underpants" a thorough workout. Director Sue Trigg makes good use of the simple yet engaging set designed by Eleisa Cambra in moving the players around with an energy at times bordering on the manic.

Manic would also best describe actor Michael Sally's portrayal of Cohen, a character that could easily be lost behind the power of Blitt's hale and hearty Theo or Eychner's foppish Versati. Sally channels a demented sort of Jerry Lewis physicality to Cohen's character, allowing him to steal more than one scene.

Bruggers and DeChant have a number of scenes together and the pair complement each other well. DeChant's salacious Gertrude proves a strong enabler to Louise's burgeoning sexuality, urging her along toward an affair with Versati while she herself is drawn to the loutish Theo.

Peabody does an excellent job of making Theo larger than life. He brings an interesting combination of conviction, hypocrisy and willful ignorance to the character, which fits perfectly within the time the piece was written and can be ascribed to many a "modern" man as well. He is a poster child for "do as I say, not as I do."

Kudos should go to John Blytt as well in the understated role of Klinghoffer, a third boarder attempting to rent the room and completely unaware of the ongoing uproar around him. His scenes with his pet fish Ludwig brought down the house.

The packed house on opening night roared through much of the show, enjoying the at times over-the-top innuendoes employed by all the characters.

Steve Martin's writing is characterized by a razor sharp wit and a keen eye for social satire. The Role Players cast utilizes Martin's trademark style, in turns with the deftness of a surgeon's scalpel or the power of a sledgehammer, reducing the audience to quivering laughter and applause.

What makes the show work so well is that it holds up a mirror to the cultural views regarding sex and gender that continue even today. It's easy to laugh because at some level we are laughing at ourselves.

There is another old saying: "Sex sells." So with that thought, "The Underpants" is sexy, it's funny, and it should have a pretty good run.

What: "The Underpants:

Who: Role Players Ensemble Theatre

Where: Village Theatre, 233 Front St., Danville

When: Jan. 16-Feb. 7

Cost: $22-$25; $15 for students

Tickets: 314-3400; www.villagetheatreshows.com

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