Theater review: “The Underpants” reveals what lies under the hem of society

Saturday, September 22, 2018

At The Phoenix Theatre

Theater review by Luanne Brown

Edmond’s Phoenix Theater does it again. Its current production of actor Steve Martin’s adaption of Carl Sternheim’s play, “The Underpants” will make you laugh — and think.

The story revolves around a socially embarrassing incident. Louise Maske, played by Renée Gilbert, is the young wife of a government clerk, Theo Maske (Asa Sholdez). While standing on a park bench watching the King’s (Jim Thompson) parade, Louise loses her underpants. The public incident causes quite a stir and attracts men to her door. The first one to show up is poet Frank Versati (Curt Simmons). Second on the scene is Benjamin Cohen (James Lynch), the besotted barber. The Maskes have a room to let and both suitors vie for it.

L-R Curt Simmons, Asa Sholdez, Renée Gilbert, James Lynch
Based on Theo’s pompous and neglectful attitude toward his wife, Louise is encouraged by her upstairs friend, Gertrude Deuter (Melanie Calderwood), to have an affair with Versati.

But Cohen wants his chance as well. And he is not the last fellow to line up for Louise’s favors. What results is comedic chaos that illustrates just how screwed up society is when it comes to the sexual relationships and gender parity — in the last, and let’s face it, every century.

I’d like to start by singing the praises of Karen Thielke the Property Artisan, who according to the program notes, is a devoted thrift shopper. As I sat in the audience, waiting for the play to begin, I took note of the many items decorating the stage. From the brass candlesticks to the bentwood chairs, lace doilies, and bamboo umbrellas, each one of these little touches cranked the clock backwards to another time and place and landed us perfectly in Germany around 1910.

The bones of the set were cleverly designed and ably built by Jim Thompson, who also played the King. I mention them upfront because usually the actors in the play get first mention, but the set and its decoration are like another character on the cast list.

Performances shine as brightly as the set. James Lynch as Benjamin Cohen mixes dignity and buffoonery to create a sympathetic portrayal to the part of ‘besotted protector’. Melanie Calderwood as Gertrude Deuter delivered lots of laughs with her quirky interpretation as the heroine’s upstairs friend who connives to get her in trouble, while professing a desire to live thru Louise’s adventures vicariously.

Curt Simmons, as the poetic lothario Versati, was hilarious and compelling. Just when you thought Versati might be the romantic hero, he reveals that he cares more for Louise’s role as muse than for Louise herself. This is Simmons' first role after a long absence from the stage. Mr. Simmons — please don’t go away again. You were a delight to watch. Tom Cook as Klinglehoff was convincing as a scientist trying to live up to his own set of morals. Costume designer Elizabeth Shipman scores extra points for the shortness of Klinglehoff’s pants. Such a revealing mark of his character.

L-R Asa Sholdez, Curt Simmons, Renée Gilbert
Asa Sholdez as husband and Renée Gilbert as wife were a perfectly imperfect pair. Sholdez was persuasive as the perfect male chauvinist but keeps his character on the right side of likable thanks to his comic flair. Gilbert’s Louise is winsome and wily, making her the one to root for in the never-ending battle of the sexes.

My one criticism of the play lies with Mr. Martin’s writing. How dare I — I know! While he delivers on the laughs, about a third of a way the laughs came harder for me when I realized that this is basically a story about sexual harassment.

The male reaction to Louise’s wardrobe malfunction exposes more than what’s under her skirt.

It exposes the lack of parity in the power between the sexes. At the opening of the story, Louise is a victim of her husband’s toxic masculinity. At the close of the story, Louise rises above her lot, but only because a man more powerful than her husband wants her in his bed.

None of her suitors care a twig about her. They are attracted to her because it helps them get their sexual jollies. It would be easy to say, ‘oh, it’s just a silly story, don’t get so ‘judgy’ about it. And I will say, I laughed along with the best of the jokes, but there was this little voice inside of me saying, ‘Me, too. Me, too.’ I only wish Martin would have gone the extra mile and given us a moment in the play when one of the male characters recognizes Louise’s plight and does something to uplift her to their level of power instead of using her for their own devices.

I don’t say this as a criticism of the theater or to take anything away from the great performances.

There are only so many plays for them to choose from and many of them reflect the values of the era in which they were written. But, I look forward to the time when theaters don’t have to rely on works of the past century. Perhaps we haven’t progressed enough to generate material that reflects the struggles in life as a fight for parity, not domination.

I still say — see this play. It’s entertaining and evocative. What more could a theater-goer ask for?

Performance Dates: September 21 – October 14, 2018
Performance Times: Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30pm, Sundays at 2:00pm
Location: The Phoenix Theatre, 9673 Firdale Avenue, Edmonds, WA 98020

Tickets are $24. $22 for seniors and students.
For tickets or information: online at, or by phone at 206-533-2000

There is plenty of free parking and ADA accessible access around the back of the building. Please call if you will need to use the back entrance or to have ADA seats reserved.


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