Reviewed by on    Theatre in Ottawa and the region   , ,

If you can believe the people at Ottawa’s fledgling Theatre Kraken, people actually had working radios back in the days when Germany possessed an emperor and housewives still wore below-the-knee bloomers as underwear.

In truth, however, such discrepancies merely define this company’s production of The Underpants as a historical mish-mash.

It’s also a mish-mash when it comes to style, performance and the accents of the characters. All of which helps to make the evening a glum and pointless theatrical experience.

Promotion for this appallingly misconceived theatrical event has emphasized the name of comedian Steve Martin who is responsible for this adaptation of German playwright Carl Sternheim’s 1911 expressionist satire of bourgeois values. The piece will never rank as one of Martin’s shining creative moments, lacking the wit and verbal agility of his earlier play, Picasso At The Lapine Agile — but Don Fex’s production at the Gladstone Theatre makes it seem even worse, giving more heed to the text’s sophomoric sexual double entendres than its more cutting elements of social and political satire. The latter are largely trampled under.

Sternheim’s play, mystifyingly, continues to be performed in a variety of adaptations. Why such affection for a farce dealing with the uproar which results when a young wife’s underwear accidentally drops to her ankles while she’s watching a royal parade? That The Underpants endures, despite offering us an essentially one-joke situation locked into a very specific cultural time frame, is indeed strange. But, in fairness, it can still work. The Shaw Festival may have failed disastrously 22 years ago when it transferred the action to American suburbia in the 1950s and garnished the whole sorry proceedings with television jingles of the day; Theatre Kraken may have further undermined the material’s reason to exist with its feeble Gladstone offering; on the other hand Kanata Theatre did have a legitimate success several years ago with a production mounted by Jim Holmes.

At the Gladstone, with one exception, we have a cast incapable of meeting key demands of character, style and farcical technique — a cast in dire need of thoughtful guidance from an attentive director.

A twittery Chelsey Cowan runs a such a limited gamut in her performance as Louise, the young wife, that she seems more likely to fade into the woodwork of Grace Solman’s tottering set than to make us understand why she’s capable of igniting such passion among assorted males. She is waif-like, wraith-like, wisp-like and overwhelmingly wimp-like. A mannered Chris Lucas plays her male chauvinist pig of a husband with such bombast that his performance perishes in a din of over-acting. Krista Marchand’s “helpful” neighbour seems to have no real handle on her role, although she does make an impact of sorts with an outburst of sexual hysteria. Indeed, the only performance showing any style and substance comes from Lawrence Evenchick in the role of a hypochondriac Jewish barber in rapture over Louise. And it is only in this performance that we get reminders of the provocative political and social undercurrents running through Sternheim’s play.

The Gladstone has housed some outstanding productions in recent years. This is decidedly not one of them.

Theatre Kraken’s production of The Underpants continues at The Gladstone to January 23.

Director: Don Fex

Set: Grace Solman

Lighting: John Solman

Sound: Don Fex

Costumes: Aline Fournier-Chambers

Cast:

Louise…………………………………………………………Chelsea Cowan

Theo……………………………………………………..……Chris Lucas

Gertrude……………………………………………………….Krista Marchand

Versati…………………………………………………………Troy Ireland

Klinglehoff…………………………………………………….Allan Zander

Cohen………………………………………………………….Lawrence Evenchick

The King……………………………………………………….Andrew Watson