The Underpants

Circa One, Circa Theatre, 1 Taranaki St, Waterfront, Wellington

13/05/2006 - 17/06/2006

Production Details

By Carl Sternheim
Adapted by Steve Martin
Directed by ROSS JOLLY


Lighting Design by JENNIFER LAL

Costume Design by DONNA JEFFERIS

The Underpants is set in Dusseldorf, 1910, where Louise, the wife of a low-paid, ambitious petty bureaucrat, causes a commotion when her underpants fall to her ankles during a parade for the Kaiser. Within hours the rumours are all over town, and her outraged husband fears humiliation and financial ruin. Will anyone ever want to rent their little spare room now she has brought scandal upon them? But to their surprise, men clamour to be their tenants. Seduction is in the air, and the cruelly neglected Louise is a star. Things rapidly start getting out of hand…

The Underpants (Die Hosen) was Carl Sternheim’s first in a six-play cycle of comedies about the German bourgeoisie, and was his first big success. Sternheim who was later to be compared to Noel Coward, saw himself in a tradition beginning with Moliere (who he revered), and running through Feydeau and Wedekind. He enjoyed exposing the aspirations, foibles and pretensions of precisely that group in society to which, in some respects, he once belonged.

The Underpants is fortunate in having found an ideal modern champion in Steve Martin, who also wrote Picasso at the Lapin Agile (performed by Circa 1996) He has lent the play his own inimitable brand of humour, combining sparkling wordplay with laugh-out-loud one-liners, while also giving the play a contemporary edge.

In contrast to its subsequent popularity, Sternheim’s original play had a rocky start.  Sternheim came from a wealthy family and prospered from his theatrical success, but his father was Jewish, and this lent him an outsider’s view of the inside. It didn’t take long for the establishment to realize just how accurate and revealing was the mirror he was holding up to it. The Underpants was in trouble with the authorities from the outset, with the Police Chief first requiring a change of title, and then insisting on attending a dress rehearsal with the intention of banning the piece altogether. It was only due to the success of an artful ruse by the legendary director Max Reinhardt that the world premiere was able to be staged in Berlin in 1911.

Theo Maske                PHIL GRIEVE
Louise Maske              HOLLY SHANAHAN
Gertrude Deuter         CARMEL McGLONE
Frank Versati              KELSON HENDERSON
Benjamin Cohen        JULIAN WILSON
Klinglehoff                  DAVID McKENZIE
Aide to Kaiser             ROWAN BETTJEMAN
Kaiser                          ERIC GARDINER

Stage Manager                       Eric Gardiner
Technical Operator                Marcus McShane
Sound                                      Morgan Samuel, Ross Jolly
Set Construction                     Iain Cooper, John Hodgkins
Paint Finishing                       Eileen McCann
Costumes                                Annemiek Wettering
                                                Jane Ferguson
Publicity                                  Claire Treloar
Graphic Design                      Rose Miller, Parlour
Photography                           Stephen A'Court
House Manager                      Suzanne Blackburn
Front of House                       Linda Wilson

Theatre ,

2hr 10mins, incl. interval

Farce goes halfway, then bottoms out

Review by Matthew Wagner 21st May 2006

The Underpants is Steve Martin’s adaptation of Carl Sternheim’s 1911 social satire, Die Hosen.  What was satirical at the turn of the century, though, now seems to belong to the world of the farcical, and when this production works best, it does so on that score: as excellent, finely crafted farce, heavily dependant on sexual innuendo and a highly physicalized style of acting.

The plot concerns a middle class couple who take boarders: Theo, a mid-level government clerk, is big in size and volume, quick to become red-faced with frustration, especially where scandal is concerned.  He becomes red-faced early and often.  His wife, Louise, is small, young, and pretty – a romantic dreamer, who, married a year, longs for, well, romance.  The scandal that drives the plot is this: while watching the parade of the Kaiser through the city, Louise’s underpants inexplicably fall down around her ankles, for the whole world to see.

Lousie thus becomes the centre of very public, and very lustful attention – potential boarders begin queuing up outside the door, including the romantic poet Versati and enfeebled barber Cohen.  Add into the mix the older, single, upstairs neighbour Gertrude – who takes it upon herself to advise Lousie in the ways of romance – and we have the perfect recipe for farce. 

And for the first half of the play, that recipe really cooks – especially in the person of Kelson Henderson’s Versati, the cast plays the style beautifully: over the top, precise, self-aware, and most importantly, funny.  In addition to Henderson, Holly Shanahan’s Lousie offers us a finely executed protagonist, one who can play the straight-woman to the chaos around her, and who can also take her part in perpetuating that chaos.  And Carmen McGlone’s Gertrude often, quite simply, steals the show. 

The production, however, seems to peak at the interval, both in terms of storyline and of the levels at which the actors can continue to operate.  The pace, the size of their characters, and the precision all seemed to diminish in the second half.

Moreover, this downslide opened the way for some of the more troubling aspects of the play to steal focus.  In a play that has been adapted for contemporary audiences, did Martin need to retain the Jewish jokes?  And why, in this production, does the Kaiser bear a striking resemblance to Hitler?  If these elements were meant to be a part of the social satire of the play, their scant dramaturgical treatment did not allow them to be so.  Rather, they appeared as archaic holdovers from Sternheim’s play and/or incongruous and unexplored additions in the current production. 

All in all, I left the production thinking that when farce works, boy-o, it really works; and when it doesn’t, well, it really doesn’t.  And both of these platitudes seem to be given fairly strong proofs in Circa’s The Underpants.


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Farce awakens sexual desires

Review by Ewen Coleman [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 19th May 2006

American funny man Steve Martin has used all his comic genius, both verbal and physical, in updating German playwright Carl Sternheim’s little known farce Die Hosen – The Underpants. And in this Circa Theatre production director Ross Jolly and his team of superb actors have pulled out all the stops in a brilliantly executed production that is exact and precise, squeezing every ounce of comedy out of the script. 

Full of double entendres, wonderful Martinesque word plays and physical antics, this simple story of the ramifications that follow when a women’s underpants fall down during a street parade is one of sheer joy to watch.  And while the tempo of the second half slows (and as a consequence so does the production) in order to get across some underlying philosophical statements, the actors nevertheless keep up the required amount of pace and energy to tell the story.

Louise (Holly Shanahan) starts out as a timid, Barbie-doll-like housewife with a dominating bullish husband Theo (Phil Grieve), who fears that the incident with the underpants will bring shame and ridicule to their household and jeopardise his career as a civil servant. 

But the opposite happens and men who caught a glimpse of Louise’s flesh come clamouring.  In particular Versati ((Kelson Henderson), a poet who is more in love with himself than Louise and Cohen the barber (Julian Wilson), a sickly nerd who denies his Jewishness – "that’s Cohen with a K" he keeps repeating.  Both arrive under the pretence of wanting to rent a room from Theo but all the while vying for his wife’s favours.  

Louise is helped out in how to deal with these men by her nosey, voyeuristic spinster neighbour Gertrude (Carmel McGlone). 

When Klinglehoff (David McKenzie), a third lodger turns up things start to become a little complicated.  But then all ends well for Louise who has gone from a naïve, sexually repressed house frau to a liberated, sexually awakened heroine, the encounters with the lodgers wakening her suppressed desires for her husband. 

This transformation of Louise is but one of many underlying themes and issues that Sternheim has running through his play, some darker than others, all to do with fidelity, sexuality and the role of men and their women, aspects of which Steve Martin has highlighted in his adaptation. 

And while much of this comes out during the second half the first half is pure farce, the actors relishing every moment to play up both the verbal and physical comedy for all they are worth.
Each brings a unique style to his or her character that highlights beautifully the characters idiosyncrasies.

Though demure and angelic as Louise, Shanahan is also an enticing sex kitten as her life is slowly transformed while Grieves as her husband Theo is a wonderfully boorish prig who is innocent of what’s happening around him.

Henderson’s foppish Versati wonderfully contrasts Wilson’s gangling nervous Cohen while McGlone is all repressed sexuality living through Louise’s experiences to make this a highly entertaining and very funny production.


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Hot sexy lusty

Review by Lynn Freeman 18th May 2006

Little housewife Louise hits the headlines in a drawers-dropping incident that leaves her the centre of attention, some wanted, some not.

Her government clerk husband, Theo, is officious, mean, and being a man of his time (1910), his wife is a pretty possession – as much of a doll as those Louise still plays with, young and naïve as she is.

Carl Sternheim’s The Underpants was a big hit with audiences but also got him in hot water with the authorities, and you can still see why almost 100 years on. The German bourgeoisie and even the Kaiser are ruthlessly pilloried in the play, set as it is in the apartment of a mismatched couple, two desperate suitors to Louise, and an eavesdropping spinster neighbour Gertrude who lives vicariously through the lusted-after Louise.

The cast is exceptional – Holly Shanahan is beautifully expressive and through her journey with Louise as she loses her childish innocence, realises her passion and finds wisdom through pain. Phil Grieve is every centimetre the unthinking husband and pompous bureaucrat who wants to stop nagging his wife "but you just won’t let me!"

The two wannbe lovers tend to steal the show, with Kelson Henderson making poet Frank a cross between Fred Astaire and Elvis as he glides across the stage, and Julian Wilson in his element as the sickly and jealous Benjamin Cohen, who moves like Mr Burns (The Simpsons) but who has a good heart in his shrunken ribcage.

Carmel McGlone is also an absolute star as the orgasmic (given half or even quarter of a chance) Gertrude, her eyes alone speak volumes of unfulfilled passion and desperation.

The Underpants droops at times in the second half, as the exhilarating full-on comedy makes way for more serious moments, and especially once the suitors, Versati and Cohen, stop their wonderfully childish bickering.

Director Ross Jolly has gone for a highly stylised production in design, direction and performance, which make the tiny moments of pathos very effecting. Donna Jefferies’ costumes are a knock-out and John Hodgkins’ clever tilted set twists the audience’s perspective. It’s wickedly funny and a style of theatre we don’t get to see too often these days.


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Dark underside exposed

Review by John Smythe 14th May 2006

If you think ‘German commedia’ is an oxymoronic notion, try The Underpants on for size at Circa. It offers a laugh-out-loud look at humanity in extremity with salutary flips to the dark underside. ‘Neck up’ acting is verboten.

I’m told that in coming to terms with American comedian/playwright Steve Martin’s adaptation of Carl Sternheim’s 1911 German satire, Die Hose, director Ross Jolly and his cast worked with the idea of ‘modern expressionism’ (more common in the world of dance). Martin had already utilised elements of vaudeville and slapstick, which share the fundamental principle of commedia in provoking laughter by giving physical expression to true and deep-felt emotion.

Expressionism also heightens reality and may be more aligned in the modern mind to the dark side of human experience, although commedia and vaudeville certainly explore those dimensions too (consider the social commentary in the golden age of silent movies). Ross Jolly reports it was when he read a translation of Sternheim’s original play that he felt the need to recover the darker tones. In so doing he has taken some interesting liberties with Steve Martin’s adaptation, giving explicit expression to aspects he found implicit in the script. [See the Forum topic, A director’s role, rights and responsibilities.  NB from 1/2/23, search in Views and Qs]

The inciting incident happens just before the play starts. In her waving and jumping excitement at a parade for the Kaiser, Louise Maske’s underpants fell down. In public! Who saw what and what will be the consequences? Louise’s petty bureaucrat husband Theo, fears a scandal that will stop people renting their spare room and ruin them financially. But demand for the room exceeds supply and Theo finds himself in a strong bargaining position.

Frank Luigi Versati III, a hopelessly romantic poet, believes he has found his muse in Louise. But a sickly barber with a passion for Wagner, Benjamin Cohen – obliged to claim he is Köen and therefore not Jewish – thinks he has glimpsed the promised land beneath Louise’s skirts. He needs her affection as an antidote to his imagined ill health and also feels compelled to protect her from the serial seducer, Versati.

Staking his claim to the room late in the game is Klinglehoff. The epitome of moral rectitude, he turns out to be a scientist determined to deny any inclination he may feel towards sensuous, let alone carnal, pleasure. His total ignorance of Louise’s recent infamy, and his obsessive need to suppress, makes him susceptible to delusion and arguably more dangerous than the others.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the moral spectrum, Gertrude Deuter, the single and sexually desperate upstairs neighbour, seizes on Louise’s situation to play out her own fantasies, albeit vicariously. “To be wanted by a man,” she breathes. “I’d give ten years of my life!” The double standard around whether husbands or wives are more entitled to have affairs gets a good airing in this context.

While Sternheim’s play satirised bourgeoisie moral hypocrisy, Martin’s adaptation emphasises the fleeting nature of fame. Ross Jolly’s production honours both themes. Having found opportunities to hint at the marital violence that was apparently explicit in the original, he carries the hypocritical rectitude and repression elements through to a pointed statement about where Germany is heading, historically.

Suffice to say that when the Kaiser makes a surprise appearance at the end (that’s in the programme so I’m not giving anything away), his appearance and behaviour are decidedly ‘führer-istic’, not least in his reaction to the cowering Cohen. Jolly also adds boy and girl rag dolls to Louise’s personal props list, setting them up for an add-on payoff that builds on an already-established theme of delusion.

The alacrity with which the cast commits to the physical performance style produces loud laughter and many a round of spontaneous applause. As Theo, Phil Grieve finds light, even soft, moments that help emphasise the fundamental darkness of his small-mined ‘heavy’: a quantum leap from his “solid duty” performance in the same role at Centrepoint last year (reviewed on on 11 November 2005).

Holly Shanahan’s Louise is splendidly tossed on the surging tides of others people’s demands and desires, as well as her own. Having briefly asserted her right to something more than marital slavery, she has to face the stark and dark reality of marriage to Theo. Her final scene – added by Jolly, as I understand it – ensures we leave with something to ponder beyond the immediate pleasure of a good night out.

In Carmel McGlone’s hands, and body, Gertrude is an emotional vampire, quivering with anticipation at Louise’s impending adventure. It is a delicious performance and the pathos she finds in the role more than doubles its value.

Kelson Henderson delights in expressing the self-deluding, all-talk-no-do posturings of romance addict Versati. The frustration we may feel at his inability to descend from the stratosphere of poetic creation to make a real connection with Louise is down to the character, not the actor. And where he ends up in the tale offers one of Sternheim’s richest satirical insights.

Benjamin Cohen is perhaps the most challenging role, given its potential to be prematurely judged as a stereotypic and therefore anti-Semitic characterisation. But Julian Wilson’s very individual characterisation cannot be seen as a generalisation. He compels empathy and even compassion, as well as irritation, by rooting every character flaw in truth and contrasting Cohen’s most pathetic moments of wheedling hypochondria with gloriously heartfelt, if brief, bursts of almost superhuman transformation.

David McKenzie ensures his Klinglehoff carries the play’s themes to a wider context, as do Eric Gardiner as the Kaiser and Rowan Bettjeman as his Aide – especially in the context of this interpretation.

The design elements – John Hodgkins’ set, Jennifer Lal’s lighting and Donna Jefferis’s costumes – are all excellent. The mostly musical sound effects (Morgan Samuel and Ross Jolly) enrich key moments. A ‘brollies-at-dawn’ duel between competing lovers, choreographed by Tony Wolf, provides a physical highlight and great visual gag.

As the ODDFELLOWS NZ International Comedy Festival shows take over Downstage, BATS and Circa Two (after the excellent Drawer of Knives closes), Circa One should more than hold its own with The Underpants.


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