Monday, July 19, 2004

A woman's dropped drawers cause a scandal in "The Underpants," Steve Martin's reworking of a 1910 play by German playwright Carl Sternheim. Kyra Poppler as Louise Mawske shocks F.L. Cabacungan with her public display.

Adorable heroine saves
lost-in-translation farce

We never see 'em fall, but Kyra Poppler's Edwardian underwear is displayed twice in Manoa Valley Theatre's season-closing production of "The Underpants." Steve Martin's modern reworking of a dark 1910 farce by German playwright Carl Sternheim can't honestly be described as sharp or fast, and it is only occasionally funny, but with Poppler as the adorable heroine, and a solid cast around her, the MVT production is worth the price of admission.

"The Underpants," by Manoa Valley Theatre, continues at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 4 p.m. Sundays through Aug. 1. Tickets are $25 general, with discounts for seniors, military and youths. Call: 988-6131.

Poppler stars as Louise Maske, a beautiful but unhappily married woman who becomes the talk of downtown Dusseldorf when her underpants become untied and fall to the ground while she is watching the king parade by. Never mind that the garment is so long-legged and loose that it has all the sexual appeal of pajama trousers. A poet catches sight of Louise's "unmentionables" and hastens to take the spare room that her husband has been attempting to rent.

A sickly barber, who confesses to have been "lying on the ground" near her and says that "if I saw what I thought it saw, it was paradise," appoints himself guardian of Louise's virtue and shows up equally determined to take the room, to protect her from the poet.

Louise's husband, Theo, a low-level government clerk who fears that her sudden notoriety will cost him his job, is a self-satisfied bombast -- but not stupid. He divides the room in half and rents to both of them. Theo views the poet as an effeminate fop, and the barber as a crybaby weakling, but welcomes their money and is oblivious to the sexual tension between them and his wife. The Maskes' unmarried upstairs neighbor catches on quickly, however, and soon becomes Louise's guide in embarking on a clandestine affair; the older woman even makes her some sexier undergarments.

Poppler develops Louise from a naive housewife into a skilled and suspicious manipulator of men without ever losing her charm. There's a lot of Marilyn Monroe's comic technique in Poppler's performance, and a touch of Judy Garland's Dorothy from "The Wizard Of Oz" as well. Poppler makes Louise's socio-sexual development seem natural throughout.

Jared Jeffries does an excellent job as the ultrachauvinist husband who heartlessly refers to his wife's wardrobe malfunction as "your sluttish behavior," and sends her off to church with instructions to "mention my name (in your prayers). God likes me."

The versatile David Starr (Frank Versatti), unrecognizable in a black wig created by Greg Howell, makes a fine farcical romantic lead as the unpublished poet who wishes to make Louise his muse -- and lover -- now that he's seen her underwear. Steven Neumeier (Benjamin Cohen) is appropriately annoying as the barber who stoops to blackmail in order to block the poet's conquest. Terry Seeborg displays deft comic skills as the nosy neighbor.

F.L. Cabacungan completes the cast as a third would-be renter, a gullible older man who enters the household unaware of Louise's notoriety. Cabacungan, too, is entertaining as a stereotypical over-the-top character.

The cast is first rate, Jim Davenport provides a suitably surrealistic set and Athena Espania's costumes capture the look of an era in which men wore suits that would not be out of place today but women were still buried in long skirts and petticoats. Despite these assets, the show falls short as social satire or comic farce.

The problems are the result of the show's age and removal from its original cultural context. A savage and controversial attack on middle-class values in pre-World War I Germany, the situation and characters alike now come across as dated, and there's a sense that much of the original comedy was perhaps lost in translation.

Sternheim was such a harsh critic of German society that he eventually left the country and died in exile, but that culture is long gone and "The Underpants" is at best a period piece made over with uneven results for people of an extremely different time and place.

And yet, with Poppler as its star, MVT's production has a charm that makes it worth seeing.

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