Steve Martin, Shanan Custer, and TRP combine for The Underpants

Amy Pirkl (center); John T. Zeiler, Nic Delcambre, and David Schlosser
Amy Pirkl (center); John T. Zeiler, Nic Delcambre, and David Schlosser
Photo by Richard Fleischman

For her latest directing gig, Shanan Custer is dealing with an early 20th-century German play translated and adapted by a modern American comedian.

It helps that the comedian in question is Steve Martin. The play is The Underpants, which opens this weekend at Theatre in the Round. It's adapted from Carl Sternheim's Die Hose, where a perfectly respectable middle-class couple has their world turned upside down when the woman's bloomers fall down at a parade for the king.

See also: Shanan Custer on Emile: "I should have paid more attention in science class"

"I'm a big fan of Steve Martin," Custer says. "What I love about him is that he is incredibly intelligent. He brings that trademark silliness, but there are the beautiful things he can do when telling a story. If you read his plays and fiction, they are very beautiful and so sweet. He is very real."

The action in The Underpants "takes place exactly the moment after it happens. One thing that is brilliant is what the audience has in their minds is far more funny than anything that you could recreate or write," Custer says.

The situation -- the fallen underpants lead to a string of possible renters for the couple's spare room -- spirals from there. While the original had plenty to say about the calcified classes of early 20th-century Germany, Martin's version "really just revels in the characters, the wordplay, and just how seriously everyone takes it," Custer says. "It's really about being in this silly, strange world."

When casting, Custer looked for "a wonderful, likeable bunch with good comic timing who would be able to jump into this and have a realness to them. They need to have depth in the midst of the silly bits. That you still care about the people was a big thing."

Beyond that, there is the comic pace of the piece. "It never lets up. We have been layering all of the pieces. It goes really quick. That's what makes it fun," Custer says. "I've constantly been looking for ways to say 'lighter, faster, crisper.' You have to jump in [to the joke] and take your breath after. It is not that slow-burning kind of comedy at all."

And like all directors, Custer has to adapt to TRP's unique stage. "If I knew The Underpants on a proscenium, I could not imagine it in the round. Comedy works well on a proscenium," she says.

That doesn't mean there aren't rewards involved in this format. "It becomes this kind of circus-like thing. You have to rethink those classical physical bits and work how to make it read for the whole the audience. When you do, it is really, really amazing. [The round] is great for The Underpants," Custer says.


The Underpants Friday through September 28 Theatre in the Round 245 Cedar Ave., Minneapolis $22 For tickets and more information, call 612.333.3010 or visit online.

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Theatre In the Round Players

245 Cedar Ave. S.
Minneapolis, MN 55454


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