November 28 to December 2, 2012
John Snow House
There are many ways a play can excite you. The writing can be striking, the direction superb, the design arresting and the performances outstanding. When all elements converge, a truly magical theatrical moment happens. A moment that for me, is a kind of nirvana. But what if only one of those features rings really true? And more problematic, what if only some of that element is great? What then? Is it still a good night in the theatre? Normally I wouldn’t think so, but when it comes to Theatre BSMT’s production of The Underpants, I’m inclined to say yes.
The play is a modern adaptation of the 1910 German farce Die Hose by playwright Carl Sternheim. Repurposed for a more contemporary audience by comic master Steve Martin, this farcical spoof of middle class morals originally ran Off-Broadway in 2002. In this production, Theatre BSMT adds its own twist by keeping the show’s era of 1912, but setting the action in Calgary just as the Stampede parade has wound its way through town.
True to most farces, the story itself is quite simple and opens with Theo Maske, a know it all, money hungry, chauvinistic, puritanical civil servant strongly rebuking his wife Louise, for allowing her underpants to fall inexplicably down during the Stampede parade for the Duke. Theo alternates between rage at his wife and self-pitying concern that her scandal will ruin them financially and brand the pair as outcasts. Not to fear however, soon enough the couple is practically overrun with men wishing to rent the spare room in the house and Theo’s worries of pauper-dom are quashed. What he doesn’t realize however is that the men vying for a spot in his home were drawn there only after seeing Louise’s underpants incident which has rendered them utterly smitten and bent on seduction. Louise, with the encouragement of her nosey upstairs neighbor, Gertrude, falls prey to one of the renters only to find that her “fame” is a fickle and fleeting thing.
It is a silly little story dumbed down from its original biting political commentary by Martin, who makes up for the fluffiness of his adaptation by peppering the script with some clever dialogue and amusing innuendo. More interesting than the story itself is the venue in which it’s told. Eschewing a traditional theatre format, Theatre BSMT has chosen to stage the production at John Snow House, an historical home located in inner city Calgary. Utilizing the living room of the house, the stage flanks the fireplace end of the room while the 20 seat audience takes up the rest of the space. It gives Director Jacqueline Russell a tight and challenging environment to work with and what results is a smartly economical production that only occasional plays too large for the space. Farce is all about big drama and big reactions and credit must be given to Russell for more often than not, finding ways to keep the funny bits strong without allowing her actors to go over the top.
This is not to say that every performance in this play worked. The cast of The Underpants suffered from extreme unevenness to the point of either/or. I was either revelling in a great performance or disappointed in an effort. As Louise, Jamie Matchullis certainly looked the part of a naïve housewife, however very little felt natural about her performance. Her jokey glances to the audience were stiffly protracted, her dialogue delivery felt read as opposed to spoken and her emotional range rang hollow. Equally unsatisfying in the other extreme was the overacted efforts of Conrad Belau as Cohen, one of the renters. Cohen is a Jew pretending not to be, a hypochondriac and a man obsessed with Louise to the point of mad jealousy. I believed none of this from Belau. Content to convey emotion by shouting most of his lines and relying on broad physical strokes to deliver his comedic moments, Belau’s Cohen felt unrealized at best and slapdash at worse.
But I am happy to forgive all this for the privilege of what I saw from the other performers which went from good to great. Amy Dettling as Gertrude was wonderfully dowdy in her sexual voyeurism and was often able to transform some of the show’s obvious and hackneyed dialogue into something fresh and funny. Heather Falk, unrecognizable as the elderly prudish gentleman renter Klingelhoff, had only a small role but made a mountain out of it due to her fantastic physical portrayal and perfect straight-man comedic timing. Alan Johnson as Theo was wonderfully bombastic and misogynist with a full internalization of his characters motivations and emotions. And the voice. The man can project. Perhaps a little too strongly for such a small space, but thanks to his emotional accuracy, I didn’t mind having my eardrums tested more than they should have been.
However there can be no doubt that this was Matt McKinney’s show. Performing double duty as Versati, the ambiguously foreign poet/seducer/renter outfitted in a tuxedo and cape and the very British Duke, this was nothing short of an inspired performance. As spoofy and ridiculous as both his characters and dialogue were, McKiney brought an enlightened subtlety to the stage with remarkable craft that allowed the audience to forget the immense effort and just sink into the brilliance of it. Whether playing the artistic Casanova Versati hell bent on seducing Louise or the tut-tut regal yet foppish Duke with an agenda all his own, McKinney was as funny and confident physically as he was vocally. It was a performance that won my rapt attention and gave me one of those rare wow moments I live for in the theatre.
So, back to my original point. Can a play be fine enough with decent direction and design, have a mix of less than stellar and outstanding performances and still be considered a good night in the theatre? I’m normally fairly intolerant of calling a production a success when it suffers from patchiness. But there is no immunity from some of the incredible talent on stage in The Underpants and it is on their artistically exciting and excellent shoulders that I was won over.
For the guys – Lots of metaphors about wieners will no doubt get giggles from the guy in you. But the real laughs will come from the zany story and some extremely funny performances. SEE IT
For the girls – Yes the two women in the play are pathetically stereotypical but this is a farce so get over it. What you won’t get over are the charms of McKinney’s Versati in full steam seduction. SEE IT
For the occasional theater goer – The casual and intimate venue might throw you, but environment aside; this is a very cute play that will provide many laughs along the way in an easy entertainment kinda fashion. SEE IT
For the theater junkie – Normally when I really like an actor in an otherwise uneven cast I will recommend that you keep an eye out for him and try to catch him in another, hopefully more robust ensemble. But really, you gotta see McKinney do his thing here. The role and his performance call for your attention. SEE IT