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Monday, May 29, 2023
Kerry Billings and Kyle Wessel star in University Theatre's production of "The Underpants," showing from April 13 to 30 at Mitchell Theatre.

Kerry Billings and Kyle Wessel star in University Theatre's production of "The Underpants," showing from April 13 to 30 at Mitchell Theatre.

University Theatre’s ‘The Underpants’ provides laughs, but also social commentary

Do we ever see the world precisely as it is, or does everything we know differ due to our individual perceptions?

A loose adaptation of German playwright Carl Sternheim’s “Die Hose,” University Theatre's “The Underpants,”  is running in Mitchell Theatre on UW-Madison campus from April 13 to April 30. As the final show of UT’s 2016-2017 season, “The Underpants” is a short and sweet but also rich 90-minute play.

After Louise, a young housewife, accidentally drops her underpants, her husband Theo becomes angry and worried that he may lose his bureaucratic job because of the incident. Two men, a poet and a barber, lust for Louise because they saw her underpants, and rent a room to live with the couple. A gossiping older woman living upstairs becomes excited about the possibility of Louise having a love affair and the idea that two men renting the room can bring her sexual benefits. The barber points out in an incisive line, perhaps his only witty line in the play, that the poet approached Louise because of his "fantasy," the barber's motive is out of "jealousy" and Louise's behavior is out of "romance."

The entire play occurs in Louise’s and Theo’s house, so the set remains unchanged. The set design is so intricately decorated that it becomes a pleasure to look at while enjoying the play, which successfully helps the audience stay in the story.

The many sexual jokes hidden in the play’s subtext seem extremely difficult to convey to the audience and make them actually laugh out loud. To get the audience to laugh is always a challenge for every comedy, but the engaging storyline and the theme are well communicated thanks to the dedicated efforts of the cast and crew.

In the Dramaturg’s notes on the playbill, Steve Martin, who adapted “Die Hose” into “The Underpants,” draws on his own experience as a celebrity and wants to communicate to the audience about privacy. According to the Dramaturg, Martin’s “The Underpants” can provide us with valuable reflection on how social media should play a role in our private life. It is interesting to witness the revealing growth of Louise’s psychological condition as the plot develops. She grows from being tentative about having a love affair to bravely pursuing it. She overestimates by her own charm, realizing that men are renting the room for her. She becomes disillusioned when an overly serious scientist comes along renting a room only for a place to stay. It is a journey of self-growth, a transition from having pride to feeling defeated along the highs and lows of life. We all have experienced or will experience that sense of defeat at some point in our lives.

In the end, Theo acquires a job promotion and the couple plans on having a baby. This conclusion is quite unsatisfying to me as a millennial living in an era where the awareness of women not having equal rights with men as a social norm is widely spread.

Theo’s male chauvinism would bother some advocates for women’s rights. Though the social norm in the play is for the women to be inferior housewives, this could be an honest reflection of 1910 Germany. As a narrow-minded government clerk, Theo seems to care nothing about the beauty of the outside world, similar to Versati, the handsome and romantic poet who is obsessed with literature and philosophy in the play. Studying humanities and expressing our own needs are crucial to our souls as human beings. Theo weighs his own work too much and gives orders to his wife as if she is a robot. Despite the negative reactions sparked by Theo and what his character represents, Kyle Wessel’s acting was quite convincing. Theo's annoyed facial expressions when he is infuriated by his nice and innocent wife helped aggrandize the audience’s negative emotions toward this character.

The women’s rights aspect of “The Underpants,” in addition to themes of privacy, are thought-provoking. Since the original story was written in 1910 Germany, it is understandable and forgivable that the play does not give an “open-minded illustration” of how men and women’s relationships should truly be, which would be slightly upsetting to equal rights advocates. What’s more important for us today is to be introspective based on the history and norms that we see and to strive to find a solution to make our cultural norms better. We are the builders of our history today.

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