The play that Guild Hall in East Hampton chose for its summer production at its John Drew Theater is tried and tested, from the director to the cast.
This exact production of “The Underpants,” a madcap comedy adapted from Carl Sternheim’s 1910 German farce “Die Hose” by Steve Martin in 2002, was put on at Syracuse Stage last fall to rave reviews.
Ever since he directed Mr. Martin’s “Picasso at the Lapin Agile” at John Drew Theater in 2007, Guild Hall artistic director Josh Gladstone had it in mind to follow up with “The Underpants.” Then, last year, as Guild Hall was staging Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons,” cast member Tuck Milligan used his day off to audition in Syracuse, and he landed a part in “The Underpants.”
“Josh asked if it would be a good play for Guild Hall,” Mr. Milligan recalled. “I said, ‘Oh yeah, it’s hysterically funny and it really fits the proscenium at Guild Hall very well.’”
Mr. Gladstone presented six possible productions for the summer of 2016 to the Guild Hall trustees, and ultimately the decision was made to contrast last year’s drama, “All My Sons,” with this lighthearted comedy.
“It’s a comedy of errors sex farce about a brief, innocently scandalous event, where a young wife’s underpants drop to her ankles as she is watching the king’s parade, and the mayhem that ensues as lust overtakes the hearts and minds of, really, the city of Dusseldorf,” explained director Bill Fennelly.
It’s not a play about infidelity or adultery, he said: “It’s a play about righting a young marriage that is trying to find its footing.”
The fallen underpants sets everything in motion, and the busybody neighbor upstairs adds hijinx as she tries to help the newlyweds get pregnant. “The young couple at the heart of this play is like so many young couples anywhere in the world who are struggling to build a home,” he said.
The couple are trying to rent out an extra room in their apartment, and prospective tenants, with the own motives, are always dropping in.
Mr. Fennelly, who is an assistant professor of theater at Drexel University in Philadelphia, also directed “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and the musical “Hairspray” for Syracuse Stage. He said that both Shakespeare and musicals lend themselves to farce, because the skills and tools are the same—they use similar language.
Mr. Milligan noted, “The director’s concepts of transitions between scenes are very theatrical ... you almost feel like you are watching a musical.”
Mr. Fennelly’s credits also include assistant director for the creation of “Jersey Boys” and resident director of “The Lion King” on Broadway, but the experience that may be the most relevant to “The Underpants” is his time working as assistant artistic director for Cirque du Soleil on the vaudeville-style show “Banana Shpeel.”
Cirque du Soleil and “The Underpants” both call for clowns—even though they won’t wear clown makeup in “The Underpants.” “We worked very, very hard in the casting of the initial production to find six distinct clowns,” Mr. Fennelly said.
One of the first cast members to join the production was Daniel Passer, whom Mr. Fennelly worked with on “Banana Shpeel” and who he said is one of the great Cirque du Soleil clowns.
“You really have to find six very specific kind of—I’m gonna say in the most loving way—idiots. Six people who are really smart actors, who are just really great at language,” Mr. Fennelly said.
In addition to Mr. Milligan and Mr. Passer, rounding out the principal cast are Michael Brian Dunn, Marianna McClellan, Sabrina Profitt and Mark David Watson. The two featured “beer hall girls” are Margot Plum, who was in the Syracuse production as well, and Hollybeth Gourlay.
Mr. Milligan said it was gutsy of Guild Hall to bring in the show from Syracuse, and not rely on a big star to attract an audience.
On why the same actors were kept in place, Mr. Gladstone quipped, “If the underpants ain’t ripped, don’t mend ‘em.’”
Mr. Fennelly just closed the production at Syracuse Stage in November last year when Mr. Milligan asked if he would mount the production again in the Hamptons this summer. He agreed, but he admitted that he never thought it would actually happen. Then in January, Mr. Gladstone called to ask him if he was still interested, and available.
“I was very interested,” Mr. Fennelly said. He was pleased with and proud of the Syracuse production, and excited to revisit it, he said. The same creative team and designers are back too. “The entire production is actually being rebuilt, stick for stick.”
He said he is impressed by how diligent and meticulous Mr. Gladstone and his team are.
“I have no doubt that the entire audience will be shaking and overcome with an attack of uncontrollable chortles and guffaws by the end of the first act,” Mr. Gladstone said. “Plus, there will be beer and hot pretzels in the lobby at intermission—wunderbar!”
“The Underpants” will be staged at Guild Hall, 158 Main Street, East Hampton, from June 9 to 26. Opening weekend showtimes are Thursday, Friday and Sunday at 8 p.m. and the official opening night Saturday at 7 p.m. Shows will continue Tuesdays through Sundays at 8 p.m., with the exception of Sunday, June 26, when the closing show will start at 3 p.m. Orchestra tickets range from $53 to $120. Balcony seats are $38 to $40. Visit guildhall.org or call 866-811-4111.
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