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Theater Review: Artists’ Ensemble opens its seventh season with The Underpants

September 15, 2010

By Edith McCauley
Theater Critic

If the title The Underpants seems a bit puzzling, the history of the play may explain the concept. Based on the original work, Die Hose, written by German playwright Carl Stenheim in 1911, it centers around a pretty young wife and her foolish older husband, who is deceived by everyone around him. The plays were often banned by the censors for his use of language and edgy humor so loved by German audiences.

Almost a century later, when the Classic Stage Company asked Steve Martin to adapt it for modern audiences, the version we see on Artists’ Ensemble stage finally emerged. Much of early comedy in this country we see as the slapstick vaudeville so popular in cities and on tours. Much of the dialogue is similar to Stenheim’s sexual innuendos and references to bodily functions. My long experience teaching fifth graders saw their humor at this level.

Do not be discouraged—The Underpants, performed by a cast of true professionals, is funny! Stephen F. Vrtol III is Theo Maske, the German husband whose philosophy of a “woman’s place” brought huge laughs, and often gasps of surprise. With his shaved head, he is the German Herr personified. The lovely Erin Spears, the young wife, constantly struggles to achieve a relationship, but it is not until the renters arrive, inspired by her accident, that life becomes more interesting.

First to appear is Frank Versati proclaiming his poetic genius. Will Clinger plays his role with great aplomb, completely dominating the stage. Clinger’s Wild Chicago on WTTW for years makes him a familiar figure. In fact, Thursday’s Chicago Tonight ran his interview with Mayor Daley that first aired in 1992 as a part of their history of the mayor’s 21 years in office.

David Gingerich comes on the scene after observing Louise’s accident in the park. As Benjamin Cohen (a name he insists is spelled with a K), we see that even in the early 1900s, being Jewish in Germany arouses enmity.

As the show ends, we see two more visitors, Klinglehoff (John Chase) and a surprise to all (Michael Palmenderi). Margaret Raether is the nosy neighbor, Gertrude Deuter, insistent on promoting a love affair for Louise. Her scene with Herr Maske is one of the funniest in the entire play.

The opening night’s audience of mostly seniors enjoyed the quirky humor and laughed at every line. It is so good to see the continuing growth of Artists’ Ensemble. Director Richard Raether’s remarks included thanks to those who make their performance possible—the Unitarian Universalist Church for rehearsal space, Mendelssohn Performing Arts Center for space in which to build sets, C & E Specialties for the loan of their vans for transporting sets and furniture, and Balsley Printing, who donates half the cost of printing programs.

The season continues with Moon Over the Brewery opening Dec. 3 and running through Dec. 19. The Underpants runs through Sept. 26. For further information, call (815) 904-2277 or go online at artistsensemble.org.

From the Sept. 15-21, 2010 issue

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