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Ted Simpson’s ‘The Underpants’ promises laughs, wild antics

Steve Martin’s adaptation breathes new life into classic German farce

Published: Thursday, April 19, 2012

Updated: Thursday, April 19, 2012 07:04

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Courtesy Ted Simpson

Allison Benko gets her undergarments measured. Hilarity ensues.

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Courtesy Ted Simpson

Ted Simpson trained his actors in the art of physical comedy.

The last play the Tufts Drama Department is offering this semester is a change from the graveness of performing previous productions “Oedipus and Antigone” and “Our Class.” In a refreshing contrast, “The Underpants” is a comedic farce that will have the audience tearing up from laughter instead of sadness.

The play, originally written in German in 1910 by Carl Sternheim, has been adapted by funnyman Steve Martin and reinvented as a modern−day satire. The plot is concerned with a married couple that includes the loud−mouthed and bureaucratic Theo Maske, who finds out that his wife allowed her underpants to fall down in public during a procession that the King himself was present in. The ensuing scandal is mostly internal as he worries that his job will be in jeopardy and his good name ruined. This, however, is the opposite of what happens, as two men who have become obsessed with his wife, Louise, soon appear at their front door, asking to rent the spare room.

While these men attempt to seduce Louise directly under the nose of her oblivious husband and Louise’s helpful, yet nosy neighbor Gertrude Deuter attempts to aid Louise in her affairs, the inevitable comedic elements of miscommunication and slapstick are prevalent throughout.

“The Underpants” is Ted Simpson’s directorial debut at Tufts University. Ted Simpson is the Head of Design and Technical Theater in the Drama Department and teaches set design and painting. When asked why he selected this play, Simpson attributed the choice to the production’s lighthearted qualities.

“We always try to do something a little lighter and funnier in the spring. This is the end of the season for us, and it fits nicely into that more carefree atmosphere. It’s also a good way for me to get back into directing, since farce is a good way to exercise your directing muscles,” he said.

According to Simpson, there have been many good German, French and English farces but few German plays that have been translated into English.

“Sternheim had a satirical edge to his writing as well as it just being farce. He belonged to the bourgeoisie class and was a critic of anti−Semitism in Germany at the time, which bleeds through into the play. He even has a little to say about women’s rights as well,” Simpson said.

A farce is described as a sub−genre of comedy that aims to make the audience laugh through various techniques including improbable situations, mistaken identity, miscommunication and hyper−narration.

A farce also utilizes physical comedy, oftentimes embodied in a climactic chase sequence. The audience is encouraged to pay less attention to the plot and instead focus on the purposefully absurd and hyperbolic acting methods utilized by the cast members. The farcical elements of “The Underpants” stem from the physical comedy as well as from the unavoidable and humorous fact that the plot centers on a pair of underpants.

However, it isn’t just the director and actors who put effort into making the show as entertaining as possible. The set for “The Underpants” is an incredibly detailed representation of Theo and Louise’s apartment and reflects them as a couple. Chintzy chairs and brightly painted furniture litter the stage, and Gertrude’s apartment is cleverly represented through the use of a window that is level with the audience.

“For the set, the entire design staff wanted to create a world that was a little more of a folksy Germany. When we were preparing to do the show we looked up a lot of German folk art, cuckoo clocks and German fashions from the time, and even though the show is set in a city and the King is nearby, we thought it should have a more provincial look than an urban look. So we’ve given it a kind of country cottage feel, just a little bit but not wholly fairytale in design,” Simpson said.

The transformation of the play from a German comedic social commentary to an English farce could have ruined its comedic poignancy, but Steve Martin managed to make it applicable to modern−day audiences while tying it to current politics. The content of the play helps with that. Even though much has changed, the original basis for Sternheim’s political topics still exists in modern day society.

Martin’s application of these issues, to some degree, rings true for women today. Yet in this day and age, a controversy stemming from an accidental public flashing would hardly result in such extreme drama, since this is a common occurrence in music videos or on television.

The cast members all agreed that the production and rehearsal process was incredibly easy and streamlined. The show was cast just after winter break and went into rehearsals at the end of February. The rehearsal period for a typical production is six weeks, but spring break caused a more scattered schedule.

The cast is a mix of people with different levels of experience. This was junior Paul Kim’s first show, though he had taken acting classes before. For seniors Kyle Cherry and Alexa Chryssos, on the other hand, this is the last show of their Tufts career.

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