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Econo-Art Theatre Company

at ARC Gallery

Carl Sternheim’s provocatively titled 1910 masterpiece, The Underpants, is part of a comic trilogy called “The Heroic Life of the Middle Class,” and everything I’ve read about it places it in that context. Everybody–from that combative old Leipziger, Herr Sternheim himself, to whoever writes press releases for the Econo-Art Theatre Company–everybody says The Underpants celebrates the dumb persistence of the bourgeoisie; their knack for turning the worst circumstances to advantage, and thriving while their wittier, richer, or more sensitive betters are busy falling apart. Their resilience, in short–not unlike that of the cockroaches, who predate dinosaurs and are certain to outlast people.

And sure enough, when you look at the play, there’s Theobald Maske, a petty official under Kaiser Wilhelm, scurrying around like some 350,000,000-year-old cockroach–healthy and shrewd, unencumbered by ideologies and illusions, interested in absolutely nothing but the imperatives of his physical life: his position, his privacy, his family, his mutton. His 700 taler a year. “Where is the world?” Theobald asks, in a fit of passionate pragmatism. “Down here in the pots and pans! Down on the dusty floor of your room!”

Theobald’s no-nonsense world gets a little shake when his wife Luise’s old-fashioned underpants come untied and fall to the pavement one day, just as the Kaiser’s carriage is rolling by. The Kaiser doesn’t notice, thank God, but certain others do. Before lunch, two lovestruck young men have shown up at the Maskes’ door, posing as boarders and hoping to get a more private look at those vagabond knickers.

Luise’s would-be lovers aren’t really much of a threat, though. One, Herr Scarron, is a slumming nobleman with artistic pretensions who spouts a lot of Nietzschean machismo and focuses his considerable seductive power mainly on himself. The other, a barber named Mandelstam, turns out to be a ridiculously neurasthenic Wagner-worshipper more in need of a mother than a mistress. The two of them pretty much talk themselves out of bed with the beautiful, young, neglected Luise. And even pay their landlord, Theobald, for the privilege. Before they’re finished, their proto-Nazi Teutonic romanticism has made Theobald look positively benign.

Hence the notion of the heroic middle class.

But something unexpected happened when I saw The Underpants in its new Econo-Art incarnation. Something that wasn’t anticipated in any of the little essays I’d read. Theobald and his cockroach tenacity actually began to recede as a subject, and what came across most powerfully instead was Luise’s gradual recognition of her own status in the world. Or lack of it. Her rueful, awakening sense of herself as nothing more than a prop for Scarron and Mandelstam; a drudge for Theobald; a love/hate fantasy figure for her old maid neighbor, Fraulein Deuter. Her very first inklings, in other words, of a feminist consciousness.

Somehow Luise ceased to be a hinge for the action and became its center. The Underpants started looking like a much funnier–but ultimately less optimistic–rewrite of A Doll’s House.

Fascinating as it is, I’m not sure the change of emphasis was intentional. Maybe it’s just culturally impossible to do this particular play anymore without acknowledging Luise’s struggle. In any event, certain choices made that acknowledgment more likely. Craig Kinzer, for instance, chose a fairly restrained directorial style despite the almost Ubu-like cartoonishness implicit in Sternheim’s script–and so allowed us to see Luise as something more subtle and complicated than the naive airhead who can be had for the price of a little kindness.

Kinzer also chose the very beautiful Stephanie Galfano to play Luise, which she does in an appropriately passive and detached way. Whether by design or habit, Galfano lets a musing little smile play across her lips throughout her performance, the effect being to create a crude sort of Brechtian alienation device: she becomes an observer of her own character’s progress through the civilized jungle of sexual politics. It’s this observation that leads finally to Luise’s feminist awakening–such as it is.

Like I say, I’m not entirely sure how much of Galfano’s Luise is intentional. But it’s obvious that Lynn Baber’s in complete control of the laughs she draws as Fraulein Deuter. Likewise, Paul Myers is a perfect brat as Mandelstam; and Gunnar Branson does a fine job of letting his Scarron devolve from Ubermensch to oaf. Marc Silvia allows Theobald an interesting humanity, but goes a little light, for my taste, on the horror of the guy. Juli Walker’s costume designs are witty, especially with regard to the foppish things they do to Mandelstam and a certain Herr Stengelhoh. But Tom Larson’s set, with its reproductions of cartoons by George Grosz and others, seems out of step with Kinzer’s essentially naturalistic approach. Still, this Underpants is worth a guilty peek.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Suzanne N. Plunkett.