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Brilliant Disguise

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KEEP YOUR PANTS ON!

Wit's End Theatre Company

at Raven Theatre

FAITH, CHARITY, AND HOPE

Tight & Shiny Productions

at the Bop Shop

Keep Your Pants On!, Manfred Karge's beautiful and sad exploration of German society from the 1920s to the 1970s, is ultimately a play about one woman's victory over painful and life-threatening circumstances. Karge's treatment of the woman's situation takes the glory out of her victory, making us wonder if a life such as hers is worth leading. But he answers with a definitive "There is no choice."

Karge's ability to find beauty in this seems distinctly European. His play is loosely based on the true story of a woman in the city of Mainz who assumed the identity of her dead husband during the Depression in order to keep his job and the income it produced. Usually gender switching is used as a premise for a good chuckle, but Karge avoids cliches and jumps headfirst into the issue of sexual identity, and the result is a play rich in paradoxes and poetic imagery.

Karge doesn't simply give us the life of Ella Gericke. He gives us the life of Ella disguised as Max, a simple person trying to survive in politically and economically turbulent times, first as a crane operator, then as a Nazi storm trooper, then as a farmhand--in other words, a woman trying to survive as a man in a world that's cruel to both sexes.

Lizz Holmes has been working with this one-woman tour de force for more than two years. She first began studying with the play's translator Carl Weber at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco, staged an experimental version of it last year at the Bailiwick Director's Festival, and then gave it a full-scale production at Seven Stages in Atlanta. She seems to have an intimate knowledge of her character, which she wears like a second skin, bringing out Ella's femininity and at the same time persuading us that she could easily have passed for a man.

The attention to detail and professionalism of Holmes and her codirector David Gipson is truly impressive. Not one moment is left to chance, not one element of the staging is wasted. Together they skillfully balance the futility of Ella's life with her indomitable will to survive. Weber's translation delicately highlights Ella's isolation and loneliness, while charming us with the richness of Karge's imagery.

Faith, Charity, and Hope, a satire about a poverty-stricken woman whose struggle to survive is thwarted by selfish rich people and an overzealous bureaucracy, fails in almost all the ways Keep Your Pants On! succeeds. It was written by German playwright Odon von Horvath during Hitler's rise to power. The Nazi regime ultimately banned the play and deported von Horvath, allegedly because he shared Hungarian and German nationality.

Faith, Charity, and Hope is a harsh critique of German society in the early 20th century, a condemnation of a form of fascistic conformity to popular beliefs. Unfortunately, Tight & Shiny Productions fails to capture its satirical spirit. Director Brian Shaw and his cast don't seem to completely understand who and what von Horvath is attacking, and it's a little hard to make fun of something if you're not quite sure what it is.

The production also suffers from a lack of conceptual development. The German society von Horvath portrays has some striking similarities to our own; lines like "Whatever happened to the affluence of yesterday?" and "Without an address, I couldn't find a job" could easily be spoken by a large number of Americans. Yet Tight & Shiny doesn't develop this similarity.

The actors give stilted and unnatural performances, with no subtlety and a lot of raised voices. Brett Snodgrass's scenic design evokes nothing of German society in the 1930s (or anything else for that matter). Robyn Young's costumes are visually appealing and seem historically accurate, but they're missing a sense of character. They too would benefit from a greater understanding of the script.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Mitch Canoff.

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