August 29, 2019: ALTAS- “The Underpants”

ALT launched its 2019/20 season with the production of The Underpants at the Adventure Space. This comedy is the Steve Martin adaptation of the German play by Carl Sternheim from 1910.

The play’s plot, contrived even for a farce, centers around the consequences arising from publicly-dropped drawers. Louise, played by Macy Owen, thinks nothing of the incident until problems of perception proliferate.

In an era where hemlines reached the floor, just the suggestion of forbidden fruit catalyzed a chain reaction of libidinous misconceptions and misadventures involving the whole cast.

Originally written in the heyday of Freud, The Underpants is laced with sexual overtones and double entendres played against serious social issues making the play often seem like a mash-up between Abbott and Costello meeting Tennessee Williams.

The dramatis personae played their characters with a punch and verve that kept the audience engaged. Owens, the ingenue, morphs from clueless to a worldly-wise hausfrau finally owning up to her own desires and needs.

Richie Garza, as husband Theo, is the ocd, narcissistic and similarly clueless bureaucrat whose penchant for worst-case scenario makes mountains out of molehills and drives the whole play. His pretensions to perfect public deportment crash and burn when he comes on to his neighbor Gertrude.

Shannon Mashburn plays this goodhearted but lusty nosy neighbor from hell with all this part demands and then some.

Director Cy Scoggins, making his ALT debut, acknowledged that the biggest challenge in this production, as in any comedy, was timing, and much of the effort of both director and cast concerned the clock. It worked, as the production produced laughs galore.

The laughs largely stem from Steve Martin’s rewrite, and often hide darker issues. For instance, the hypochondriacal fetishist Cohen, played superbly by Jonathon Mobley, keeps belaboring the point that it is Kohen, with a K, thus desemiticizing the name.

Similarly, Sternheim excoriates the pretentious hypocrisy of German bourgeois morality which masked the strident reactionary militarism which would explode in WWI.

And the most elevated, vaunted elements of German society, the nobility embodied in the Kaiser (Brent McFarland) and the educated elite in the character of Klinglehoff (Michael Westmoreland) reveal the same common ground of primal urges and failings.

Since Aristophanes, dramatic comedy has been a two-edged sword. And, with The Underpants, alarm bells sound. If the Germans had listened to their artists and playwrights, the great catastrophes of the twentieth century could have been avoided.

The thanks of our community goes to Amarillo Little Theatre for productions that are multifaceted and layered. Yet, quality theatre is only one of the manifold arts abounding here in Cowboy Country.

This is why we say, at the beginning of this arts season, “Break a Leg, and Keep Amarillo Artsy, Keep Austin Weird, and Keep Lubbock in the Rear View Mirror!”

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