Undergarments are falling down at the Wichita Community Theatre.
Hijinks, hilarity and adolescent humor pepper the script of the local theater’s latest show, Steve Martin’s adaptation of “The Underpants,” a character-driven piece that focuses on desire, fidelity and the fickle nature of celebrity.
“It’s a combination of wonderful highbrow and lowbrow humor,” said director Mark Anderson. “It’s got clever, witty lines that go over a lot of people’s heads. It’s sociopolitical satire and middle-school playground jokes.”
The story centers on the notoriety that young Louise Maske gains after her underwear accidentally drops during a parade for the king. It’s a spectacle that the entire town quickly learns about. As her husband, Theo, seeks tenants for a vacant room in their home, would-be occupants are more interested in Louise than they are a new lease.
The doe-eyed housewife soon finds herself the object of desire as the shy, muted Frank Versati and the more gregarious, spirited Benjamin Cohen compete for her affection. Her older, more seasoned neighbor Gertrude helps Louise devise a plan to have an affair with Cohen, though they must all work around the precise, yet oblivious, Theo if they are to have any luck. It’s a situation fraught with trickery that makes for a humorous unfolding of events.
“Normally, I don’t like shows about infidelity. The only way to treat it is with comedy,” Anderson said. “If you make it a farce and explore the desires that surround it, there’s something there. It also works because it’s not about an actual affair so much as it is what Louise wants. She actually grows the most and learns to stand up for herself in the end.”
The play was originally written by Carl Sternheim and was scheduled to debut in Germany in 1911. The initial staging was banned because of the “obscene” nature of its storyline, though it did eventually find success. Steve Martin adapted it in 2002 for an Off-Broadway production. Though it’s more than 100 years old, Anderson said that the central theme remains relevant to American popular culture.
“It talks a bit about the nature of celebrity and how it’s fleeting,” he said. “The fact that she’s notorious for an accident is not unlike the reason a lot of other people today are famous. It’s that sort of Paris Hilton, Kim Kardashian phenomena.”
The local production debuted on Thursday, and Anderson said it’s been well received and enjoyed by audiences of all ages. He said that while the play is full of racy, naughty humor, it’s never dirty and the storyline is pulled off in a comical yet tasteful manner.
This Wichita Community Theatre production has a unique twist to it, with the set and costumes fashioned to make audience members feel as though they are part of the play. The stage is set up on a 45-degree angle and has a distinct Tim Burton-esque feel to it, with windows hanging from the ceiling while cabinets and furniture oddly slant. The railing separating the upper- and lower-level audience seats is also a continuation of that design. The black-and-white background contrasts with the vivaciously costumed characters. All but one of the actors wear bright, fluorescent-colored clothing. The contrast gives the stage a three-dimensional feel. Anderson said all of this lends itself well to the play’s slapstick humor.
“It’s a farce, and the characters are so caricature,” he said. “It’s kind of like a cartoon with the black and white background, sort of reminiscent of silent films. The music also fits that motif. It’s like a melodrama but without the audience participation. I wanted everyone to feel like they are inside the show.”
The cast is a mix of seasoned veterans along with some new talent. Maddy Campbell and Jonathan Clothier play the leading roles of Louise and Theo Maske. John Keckeisen and Kyle Dilley play prospective tenants Frank Versati and Benjamin Cohen. Crystal Meek takes on the role of the seducing, busybody neighbor Gertrude Deuter, while David Bailey rounds out the cast as the aloof, straight-laced Klinglehoff.
“It’s fun,” Anderson said. “We don’t take any of it seriously. It’s as unpretentious as it can be, and it’s a relaxing, quality show.”