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Steve Martin-penned play conveys timely message


FARMINGTON — After appearing in two straight Theater Ensemble Arts productions — "M*A*S*H" and "The Three Musketeers" — that are built around an abundance of strong male characters, Thomas LaRue was ready for something a little different when the time came to open the company's 21st season this winter.

It's not just that he'll have his hands full serving as the director and as one of the leads in TEA's production of "The Underpants" that opens Friday night at the Totah Theater. It's that the play — a Steve Martin adaptation of a 1910 farce by playwright Carl Sternheim — explores some themes that are particularly timely, even though Martin turned out his version of the story in 2002, and it is set in Germany in 1910.

"It's got a lot to say about gender roles and sexism and the #MeToo movement," LaRue said.

However, that doesn't mean the audience is in for a dour evening of earnest political theater — far from it. The fact that it's written by Martin, whose comedy credentials stretch back to the 1960s, should alleviate any of those concerns.

The play focuses on a conservative couple — a stiff government clerk and his comely wife — whose world is turned upside down when her undergarments betray her and fall to her ankles in public.

"A lot of it is about how women are perceived and objectified — and men are in on it," LaRue said, explaining that the aforementioned scenario also takes dead aim at the banality of celebrity culture and how a simple wardrobe malfunction can result in a seemingly never-ending scandal.

In true Martin fashion, all of that is conveyed via a light comedic touch, which suits LaRue just fine. That's his preferred genre, he said, noting that he also directed the TEA production of Martin's "Picasso at the Lapin Agile" in April 2016.

"Comedy gives you a lot of freedom to say things that are important but in a way people don't think is heavy handed," he said.

LaRue said "The Underpants" doesn't feature a good deal of physical comedy, so no one should expect a Teutonic version of Martin's 1978 hit single "King Tut" or "The Jerk." But it largely avoids veering into high-brow, cerebral territory, as well. Instead, LaRue said, its humor resides in the interactions between the actors, and that's what makes it such an enjoyable vehicle for the cast.

LaRue found himself thrust into the co-lead role of Theobald Maske when another actor dropped out of the production. That means he's pulling double duty in this production, but he credited his cast and crew with making his job easy.

LaRue's co-lead is Rhonda Sigler, portraying his onstage wife Louise, the victim of the underperforming bloomers. The two have worked together a handful of times over the previous few years, and LaRue described her as a phenomenal actress.

More: 'Three Musketeers' opens at Lions Wilderness Park Amphitheater

The cast also includes Chenisse Anderson, Jessica Dufur, Lenore Marcotte, Mark Burnham and R.J. Macsalka. LaRue and Burnham worked together on "The Three Musketeers," and the director said he brings a lot of energy and versatility to the stage. Anderson will be making her first appearance onstage in quite some time, LaRue said, but she has responded with a veteran's touch, bringing great insight and compassion to her character.

Marcotte's role is likely to make her a crowd favorite, LaRue noted, explaining that she plays the Maskes' saucy upstairs neighbor, Gertrude Dueter, an older woman who displays a streak of hedonism. Dufur will be making her TEA debut as the scientist Klinglehoff, and LaRue said her willingness to do whatever is asked of her and take direction has made her a pleasure to work with.

More: Curtain goes up on TEA production of 'M*A*S*H'

"The Underpants" will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the Totah Theater, 315 W. Main St. in downtown Farmington. It continues at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 16-17 and at 2:30 p.m. Feb. 18. Tickets are $12 for adults, and $10 for students and seniors. Tickets for the matinee performance are half price with a donation of nonperishable food items to the ECHO Food Bank.

Call 505-326-2839 for more information.

Mike Easterling is the night editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.



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