Sharing Steve :: New Stuff
Sunday, January 30, 2005

A review of Underpants with some new info on Steve

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (Wisconsin)
January 30, 2005 Sunday
Final Edition
Pg. 8
Rep's `Underpants' still fits Steve Martin
DAMIEN JAQUES, Journal Sentinel theater critic, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

On a rainy night in July in 1978, Steve Martin stood on the Alpine Valley Music Theatre stage in East Troy in his trademark white suit, with an arrow sticking through his head. He juggled three oranges, played the banjo and made a dime disappear for 15,000 people.

Martin finished his act by announcing he would show how a jailbird escapes from prison. With spotlights raking the stage in a crisscross pattern, the comedian ran back and forth across the width of the platform and then disappeared out the back door.

It was Steve Martin, 32 years old and at the height of his stand-up career. He had not previously performed for an audience that large.

Peering into the future, a film career for the native Texan was not an artistic stretch. But it's unlikely a single person in that Alpine Valley crowd guessed that the comic who recorded the novelty hit "King Tut" would become a playwright, novelist and regular essayist for The New Yorker magazine. That would have seemed as improbable as Sonny Bono becoming a congressman.

There was obviously a lot more to the silly Steve Martin of the '70s than met the eye. Milwaukee Repertory Theater artistic director Joseph Hanreddy, hardly an arrow-through-the-head guy, thinks so.

He chose to mount the comedian's "Picasso at the Lapin Agile" in 1999, and the show set a box office record for the Quadracci Powerhouse Theater that has since been broken. Hanreddy selected another Martin play for this season. "The Underpants" opens tonight in the Stiemke Theater.

The artistic director counts himself among the fans of Martin's work as a performer, filmmaker and writer. "I keep his quote, `I believe that entertainment can aspire to be art, and can become art, but if you set out to make art you're an idiot' on my desk," Hanreddy recently said.

"The Underpants" owes its existence to perhaps the smallest of theatrical genres, the German farce. Written as "Die Hosen" in 1911 by Carl Stern-heim, it was considered dangerous enough by imperial authorities and the Nazis to be banned during World War I and World War II.

Martin was invited by New York's Classic Stage Company in 2002 to adapt "Die Hosen" into an English language script. He shifted the emphasis from marital and political farce to more of a statement about the fleeting capriciousness of fame. But the basic facts of the story remain the same.

During a formal military parade in Dusseldorf, Germany, early in the the 20th century, the wife of a minor government bureaucrat drops her drawers as the kaiser passes by. Is it a political statement? Is it a signal of sexual availability from a bored and ignored spouse? Or is it an accident?

Whatever the truth, the woman briefly becomes the center of attention. Several men pursue her.

Hanreddy finds a parallel in a recent event that caused a cultural brouhaha -- Janet Jackson's momentary exposure of a breast during last year's Super Bowl.

"This is really Steve Martin's play," director Risa Brainin said during an interview. The theater artist based in Santa Barbara, Calif., is staging her first show for the Rep, but she has directed two shows, including a memorable production of "Uncle Vanya," for the American Players Theatre.

"The Sternheim version is much darker. Martin made the play his own; he softened the play. If you did the Sternheim now, I don't know if we would find it funny."

Brainin said she and her cast are not treating the piece as farce. "I think Martin has his own style. Imagine Steve Martin reading all of the lines. That is the style.

"He is not Jim Carrey. That is always way over the top. Steve Martin's humor always stays grounded."

The director said the piece includes Martin's comic comments on developing situations within the play. She described the rehearsal process as trying to get into the comedian's mind. "Let's make a choice Steve would enjoy," Brainin said is the prevailing principle in deciding how to play a moment.

"In any comedy, what's difficult is not to look for the joke but to find what is human," Brainin continued. "At the end of the day you want people to walk out of the theater with something a little richer than slipping on a banana peel. Steve Martin does not write cotton candy."

Brainin has a theory about Martin's success across such a broad range of media. "His writing has great skill. Maybe that is the key to his successes from the start, even as a stand-up.

"You get a warm feeling from Steve Martin, either watching or reading him. He is intellectually stimulating and emotionally stimulating.

"It all gets back to that human thing. No matter how outrageous his characters, they are always connected to the real."


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