Farce is perhaps the silliest of theatrical genres. A group of people is swept into a situation that rapidly spirals out of control, be it a love affair, a vacation or a business transaction. Duplicity, broad physical comedy and totally absurd plot points are rife throughout the play.
“The Underpants” is a farce in the truest sense of the word. The play, adapted by famed comedian Steve Martin from a 1910 German farce of the same name, is the final production in the Penobscot Theatre’s 2009-10 season, and opens in previews at 7 p.m. Wednesday.
In the show, Natalie Kuhn plays repressed turn-of-the-century German housewife Louise, whose underpants accidentally fall down during a parade for the king. Her husband, Theo (Arthur Morison), is mortified; her upstairs neighbor, Gertrude (Joye Cook-Levy), is turned on. Three onlookers at the parade — Versati, Cohen and Klinglehoff (Adam Laupus, Dominick Varney and Allen Adams) — are determined thenceforth to get themselves as close as possible to Louise. Wink wink, nudge nudge.
“It’s all based in this kind of unreality,” said director Nathan Halvorson. “So that idea just kind of morphed into dance. It’s a conceit. Each character has a dance of what the moment of the underpants dropping made them feel. It’s supposed to be bigger than life and absurd and anachronistic.”
Thus, we have all the characters doing a groovy little shuffle to Elvis Presley. The nebbish Cohen and the now sexually awakened Louise slow dance to cheesy 1980s pop songs. The lascivious Versati, Cohen’s rival, does a tango with Louise. It’s akin to the contemporary songs the Baz Luhrmann film “Moulin Rouge” uses to drive the plot along.
The set recalls Luhrmann, too, along with the wackier side of Tim Burton, or a Dr. Seuss book. Designer Lex Liang, in his third set design this season, chose striking swirls of vibrant fuchsia, bold shades of emerald and rich ochres to color his multilevel take on an early 20th century German home. Rhonda Kirkpatrick’s costumes pair polka dots with paisley. It’s not historically accurate at all, but it is a terrific amount of fun.
“It’s really sexy and physical,” said Halvorson. “Not in an outright, R-rated kind of way, but there’s a lot of innuendo. It’s very suggestive. There’s a lot of different characters at play. Cohen is the sickly, neurotic barber. Versati is like a pirate, poet type. Gertrude is like Mae West. There’s a lot of different kinds of interactions.”
The underpants mean something different for each character. That one event — Louise’s accidental public indecency — is the catalyst for all the action in the play.
“It’s divinity for Versati,” said Adam Laupus, a New York-based Equity actor making his Penobscot Theatre debut. “It’s something spiritual. He really, really, really loves women.”
“It’s an absolute catastrophe for Theo,” said Arthur Morison, who appears regularly on the Penobscot Theatre stage, last seen in “A Christmas Carol.” “It’s the worst possible thing that could ever happen. He just wants his life back, with his wife cooking him dinner and none of this sexy business ever coming into play.”
The gamble of including dances and wild costumes in a show that doesn’t explicitly call for them is that, if it doesn’t work, it detracts from the overall experience. None of the actors felt that was the case, however.
“Strangely enough, the dances kind of centered me in my character,” said Natalie Kuhn, also a New York-based Equity actor. “It really elevates the story. I think Louise kind of breaks out of her shell, and comes to know herself through this event that throws everyone else around her into chaos. She becomes liberated. The dancing just illustrates that.”
“It’s good to be naughty,” said Joye Cook-Levy. “It’s good for your soul.”
If you go
The Penobscot Theatre’s production of “The Underpants” opens in previews at 7 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, May 26 and 27. The show opens at 8 p.m. Friday, May 28. Additional performances are set for 5 p.m. May 29, and 3 p.m. May 30. The show runs through June 13; for tickets and more information, call 942-3333 or visit www.penobscottheatre.org.
Natalie Kuhn: Louise
Joye Cook-Levy: Gertrude
Adam Laupus: Versati
Dominick Varney: Cohen
Arthur Morison: Theo
Allen Adams: Klinglehoff