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January 16, 2007 > The Underpants

The Underpants

By Steve Warga

At the confluence of five streets in the heart of the Irvington District, a distinctive structure dominates the corner of Fremont Blvd. and Bay Street. Though it houses only two levels, they're of the Victorian-era design with high ceilings and narrow hallways, so the building rises to nearly three stories in height. Visit Bay Street Coffee Company on the ground floor if you like, then take the outside staircase to the top floor and step into one of Fremont's artistic treasures, Broadway West Theatre Company.

For 10 years and counting, Broadway West has hosted and/or produced a virtual Who's Who of theatrical productions. Bye-Bye Birdie, The Caine Mutiny, To Kill A Mockingbird, Driving Miss Daisy, are just a few on the list. Not one of the 50-plus plays staged in this intimate venue has failed to impress and entertain its audiences.

Their latest production of Carl Sternheim's The Underpants, as adapted by Steve Martin, may now join the honor roll. It's an entertaining, well-acted, slice-of-life-as-farce production, positioned at the front end of the theatre's 11th season. Maybe it's nothing more than habit by now, but co-owners Paula Chenoweth and Mary Galde somehow manage to stage one outstanding production after another in their quaint little theatre with a family-like atmosphere.

Set in Germany in 1910, The Underpants tells the story of a woman's unfortunate public embarrassment when her bloomer straps come undone just as the king passes by in a parade. The scene itself is not portrayed, but Morgan Voellger, as Lousie Maske, describes it thoroughly, several different times as other characters react in their own, very different ways. Although Louise hurriedly retrieves and hides her unmentionables after they fall to her ankles, more than a few others notice; including several men, each of whom is overcome by love (lust?) after witnessing the event.

So smitten are these men that each contrives to meet, woo and conquer her; first step being to discover where she lives. In so doing, the suitors learn she is married to Theo, a chauvinistic, petty German bureaucrat, delightfully portrayed by James Hiser, a Broadway West regular. Oblivious to all else other than saving every spare coin possible, Theo hasn't, um, serviced his young wife since their wedding night a year ago for fear of a pregnancy he believes they cannot afford.

Prompted by her widowed and lovelorn neighbor, Gertrude, Louise soon talks herself into welcoming the advances of one suitor, foppish poet Frank Versati, while spurning those of hypochondriac Benjamin Cohen, who assures Herr Maske that Cohen is spelled with a 'K' and thus not of Jewish origin.

Voellger, Hiser, Julie Masterson as Gerturde, and Spencer R. Stevenson as Cohen-with-a-K, all display a fine sense of presence on Broadway West's cozy stage. Director Robert Casillas demonstrates a deft touch in maintaining balance between expression, projection and audience-awareness. Not such an easy task, given actors reaching for full expression of their characters and lines while almost literally stepping over the feet of front-row viewers! It works, though, just as it has for the past decade and the entire effect is wonderfully entertaining.

Taking nothing away from the talents of his fellow-actors, Joseph O'Malley as the effete poet, Versati (and briefly as the German king), manages to shine just a bit brighter in his role. A Bay Area native and current resident of San Francisco, O'Malley auditioned for the role in far-off Fremont because he's wanted to play it ever since his first encounter with another Martin work, Picasso at the Lapin Agile. "When I saw that Steve Martin had adapted Sternheim's work, I wanted to play the part of Versati," O'Malley notes. His moves, expressions and flawless delivery of lines both funny and self-absorbed, all blend into an award-winning brand of acting.

The poet is a poet, through and through, devoted entirely to word-smithing and utterly oblivious to his deplorable lack of talent. Capturing that special turn-of-phrase that will land him in the pantheon of poetic legends is so vital to Versati that at one point, he literally walks away from a blatantly aroused Louise, desperately awaiting his attentions on a hastily-cleared dining room table. Ah, well, one has one's priorities!

The other role in the play, that of an obsessive-compulsive named, Klinglehoff, comes across as curious confusion. Local actor, Kyle Smith's fine and convincing acting seems wasted on a character whose presence in the script raises an unavoidable question, "What's the point?" He appears in the opening scenes then disappears until the end when he is back again looking to rent the room and take his best, but pathetically hopeless shot at the comely Louise. Ultimately, the role seems superfluous. But blame the playwrights for this, not the cast and crew.

The Broadway West Company, still at the top of its game, is offering Tri-City area residents another chance to absorb first-rate theatre, acted and directed with polished professionalism in a warm and friendly venue with complimentary drinks and snacks too! It's an outstanding way to appreciate the performing arts right here in our own backyard.

The Underpants
Jan. 12 - Feb. 10
Weekend evenings at 8 p.m. (Sunday matinees at 1 p.m.)
Broadway West Theatre Company
4000-B Bay Street, Fremont
Corner of Fremont Blvd. and Bay Street
Adults: $20; students and seniors: $15
Thursdays, all seats: $15
(510) 683-9218
www.broadwaywest.org

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