Karen Fleming, who has taken on “almost every capacity in every theater in Montgomery County,” still acts on occasion. Recently she appeared, as one example, in “The Language Archive” at Silver Spring Stage.
But Fleming has also “dabbled” with directing since the 1980s – a role she is undertaking again for Rockville Little Theatre’s production of “The Underpants.”
Though it boasts a provocative title, “The Underpants” is in actuality a 1910 farce by Carl Sternheim, adapted for the stage by actor, comedian, and writer Steve Martin.
Among the other classic works adapted by Martin is “Cyrano de Bergerac,” which he turned into the screenplay for the 1987 romantic comedy film, “Roxanne.”
“I’m still acting, but I wanted to have more control over my vision of a play,” Fleming said. “Of course, directing is a lot more work.”
After more dramatic works and even dark plays she directed, such as “Humble Boy” and “Agnes of God,” Fleming came to this production as “a big fan of Steve Martin’s.” Previously she staged one of his one-act plays.
“I love Martin’s wit, which is mixed with zany absurdity,” Fleming said. “It’s a high-low comedy.”
The premise of the Sternheim play/Martin adaptation is that Louise Maske’s undergarments somehow get exposed at a town celebration. She takes it in stride, but her husband, Theo, fears for his career and reputation – especially as the couple is trying to rent out a room in their flat.
But will the undergarment exposure hurt – or help – their search for a renter?
In accepting this directorial assignment, Fleming was expressing admiration for Martin but also paying tribute to Leda Hall, a good friend and prominent presence in DC-area community theater, who passed away about a year ago.
“Leda told me that the stars were aligning,” Fleming recalled. “She knew me, and she knew the work, and said that I had to direct ‘The Underpants.’ “
With its fast pace and frequent physicality, staging a farce is by no means easy.
“There’s a need to “keep the actors safe and prevent falls, more than in most shows,” said Fleming. “I had to be careful about choreography, and add the technical considerations earlier.”
Phil Hosford, an acting teacher at the Academy of Fine Arts in Gaithersburg, loves performing – “whether professional or community, I don’t care which.”
But he did care, admittedly, about which part he got in “The Underpants.” It was Theo.
Playing him was also a welcome relief after his role as a child molester in RLT’s production of “Frozen,” Hosford laughed.
But he, too, is taken with Steve Martin’s complexity.
“The form and story of the play are strictly logical,” Hosford said. “But it’s completely ridiculous in language, and a lot of fun to say.”
Theo, he added, manages to be “narrow-minded and prejudiced, but somehow also likable and a good person underneath. He’s also naive – he doesn’t have a clue his wife has suitors.”
Despite its age, “The Underpants” has themes still relevant today, said Fleming, like the role of women in a male-dominated society and feminism.
Besides, said Hosford, Theo’s arguments with his friend Versati – his opposite – are reminiscent of Archie Bunker’s conflicts with his son-in-law Mike Stivic a.k.a. “Meathead” on “All in the Family. “It has a lot of the same dynamic, but much more absurd,” he added.
But Fleming doesn’t want to overemphasize the play’s serious undertones.
“It’s a classic ‘sex farce,’ in which there are a lot of innuendos but nothing actually happens,” she said.
Alexandra Guyker is Theo’s underwear-challenged wife. Since the production keeps the play’s original time and place, the definition of “underwear” includes Victorian-era corsets.
“The Underpants” contains some mature themes and humor and is recommended for ages 13 and over.
It runs Jan. 26 through Feb. 4 at the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre, 603 Edmonston Drive, Rockville. For tickets, call 240-314-8690, or visit: www.fscottfitzgerald.showare.com.