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EMAV Review: Knickers get knotted during LVLT's bawdy 'Underpants'

★★★☆☆ - Satisfying

The play "The Underpants," now showing on Las Vegas Little Theatre's main stage, is like an Henrik Ibsen drama and a bedroom farce all rolled into one. Adapted in 2002 by Steve Martin from Carl Sternheim's 1911 play "Die Hose," which is a satire of the bourgeoisie, it covers a lot of ground thematically but without really going anywhere. And while it's full of double entendres, witty banter, and thoughtful musing, the plot revolves around female subjugation and sexual objectification, which in LVLT's presentation evokes both laughter and dismay.

The setting is Dusseldorf Germany in 1910, a time when married women were considered the property of their husbands. As the show opens, a shocking incident has just occurred. Young housewife Louise's bloomers fell down as she stood tippy-toe trying to see the King in his parade, and her uptight husband Theo fears his reputation will be ruined by those who witnessed the event. But the two randy gentlemen who did happen to see it--the poet Versati and the barber Cohen--have something entirely different in mind. Titillated, they arrive separately at the couple's doorstep in order to rent a spare room in their flat, hoping to seduce Louise and get into her pants. And busybody neighbor Gertrude is more than happy to help.

Since the actors' experience levels are varied, director Chris Davies keeps the performances on the understated side so there's not excessive mugging. But the physical bits could use more choreography and the difficult relationship between Theo, played by James Raven Malpino, and Louise, played by Mary Claire Owen, needs to be fleshed out. While on the page Theo views their marriage as a business arrangement, it would be nice to have some connection between the two no matter how slight, so we can believe he has her best interests at heart.

As Louise, Owen resembles a delicate, porcelain doll with her pretty floral dress and cheerful nature. Her movements and mannerisms don't always fit the era, but there's a nice moment when she's alone onstage and strips down to her corset in anticipation of a romantic interlude with Versati. She strikes a series of awkward, sensuous poses she hopes might impress him, and creates a neat effect that is like a vignette from a silent movie. Her charming innocence stirs our protective instincts.

Which makes it harder to accept Theo's incessant harping about her place in their marriage and of her wifely duties. While the pragmatic fellow is written to be rigid and Malpino embodies that aspect without a doubt, he plays the part with such focused seriousness that it's hard to relate to him. A touch of tongue- in-cheek bombastry might soften the stinging words of the humorless guy.

Yet one of the best scenes of the show features Malpino as Theo and Glenn Heath as the wannabe-poet extraordinaire Versati debating the merits of their different philosophies of life. Is it better to conform dutifully to the state through endless hard work, or to live freely as an artist with a passion for beauty? There's a stark contrast between the two and the answer might lie somewhere in the middle, but the delightful Heath relishes each line with such bravado that he easily convinces us a bohemian life is the way to go.

Ernest Medina is endearing as the neurotic hypochondriac Cohen. He and Owen share a chemistry in their scenes together and his funny, deadpan stories get some of the biggest laughs of the night. The sassy Shana Brouwers shows the wheels turning in the mind of the scheming Gertrude with her funny expressions and wildly tapping fingers, while Rob Kastil provides subtle buffoonery as the frigid Klinglehoff and Dan Worthington is appropriately regal in a cameo as the King.

The set design by Ron Lindblom captures the period with detailed pieces and with warm, earthy colors, as does the light design of Ginny Adams; the sound design by Davies and Heath creates a rich atmosphere through the music of Richard Wagner; and Rose Scarborough's costumes are lovely, especially the women's dresses and Louise's yellow one in particular, with its whimsical Bavarian touches of pom pom fringe and zig zag trim.

LVLT's bawdy presentation of "The Underpants" is entertaining and amusing, but its inherent sexism might get your knickers in a twist.


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