Shanan Custer has always been a busy Fringe star, but this year she's outdoing herself: In addition to appearing in three shows, she wrote one and directed another.
Friday offered the opportunity to binge Custer's three onstage performances in a sort of unofficial mini-festival within the Minnesota Fringe Festival, all in a row at the Rarig Center Thrust.
Our Best Life
Custer & Schmidt, Rarig Center Thrust
The Custer binge was ironic, given that Our Best Life became a solo show just days before the Fringe started when Custer's co-writer — and planned co-star — Emily Schmidt got a dream job at Netflix and had to bow out. Custer took the stage on Friday to frankly explain that to the audience, and proceeded with the series of comedic sketches adapted for solo performance.
Whatever the show might have been with Schmidt onstage, with Custer alone it became a showcase for an artist who can own Rarig like Judy Garland owned Carnegie Hall. Several very funny sketches included Custer writing a Christmas letter that ends up mostly being about how much she resents the perfect lives of all the families who send letters to her; Custer as a middle-aged mom who regales a young pregnant woman with would-be empathetic horror stories from her own pregnancies; and Custer as a pint of Halo Top who resents being compared to the richer varieties of ice cream in her cooler.
Best of all, though, may have been a sketch where Custer simply read aloud an absurd-but-true series of posts from her neighborhood Nextdoor forum. Spoiler alert: The albino squirrel does not meet a happy end.
The Mysterious Old Radio Listening Society Versus the Nazis
Mysterious Old Radio Listening Society, Rarig Center Thrust
The Mysterious Old Radio Listening Society recreates vintage radio dramas live onstage, with four troupe members standing behind microphones voicing the various characters and creating all the necessary sound effects.
It's an appealing concept, which the group parlayed into a fun Fringe show with a spooky theme last summer. This year, the group — Tim Uren, Eric Webster, Joshua English Scrimshaw, and Custer — are taking on two thrilling tales that turn on Nazi threats.
The fictional Nazi death count must have long ago exceeded the actual, and that count started early. The first of this show's shorts comes from 1943, as the unflappable "Bulldog" Drummond follows the trail of a conspiracy to refuel Nazi submarines. The second dates from the early '50s, with a newspaper reporter dodging piranhas in South America as he chases a mysterious figure.
The Mysterious Old Radio Listening Society's productions are a welcome respite from the wacky hubbub of Fringe. You can sit back, enjoy the stories, and even close your eyes if you want. But then, you'd miss the sight of Uren tooting mournfully on a glass bottle to evoke those eerie ships down in the harbor.
Couple Fight: The Musical!
Weggel-Reed Productions, Rarig Center Thrust
There was a long line snaking out onto the University of Minnesota campus on Friday for the premiere of the latest installment in what's become one of the Fringe's favorite franchises since its 2015 debut. Sequels followed in each of the following years, and this year...there's music!
The Couple Fight premise is that fights between actual couples are recreated for humorous effect; sometimes the pairs play themselves, sometimes actors take their places, but most come from the comedy-theater orbit of producer Anna Weggel-Reed (disclosure: I work with Weggel-Reed at Minnesota Public Radio) and director Tom Reed.
That means that a Couple Fight show is often a chance to catch Fringe stars duking it out in a new context. This year, that includes Bollywood Dance Scene's Divya Maiya and Madhu Bangalore arguing over whether they should try an ambitious new lift. Before that, two of the funniest fights kick the show off.
On vacation in Europe, Max Wojtanowicz wonders whether his partner (Allen Sommerfeld) is being oddly quiet because of the memorials to WWII brutality they're visiting...or is it him? Then, Lizzie and Bobby Gardner reenact a worst-case scenario for the first time a pair of new homeowners try to use their house's two bathrooms simultaneously.
Musical director Keith Hovis handles live keyboard duties, and Custer and Webster return to the stage as the married couple they are, with Custer trying to explain Lord of the Rings to her Law & Order loving husband. It's a hoot.
The Winding Sheet Outfit, Southern Theater
Emily Dussault plays the mishap-prone partner of Allison Witham in Couple Fight, then on Friday she zipped over to the Southern Theater to star as Erzsébet Báthory in the also musical, but very different, Blood Nocturne.
The house was packed, and it will likely continue to be as buzz builds for this ambitious and complex postmodern musical about a real-life Hungarian noble who's been mistreated by historical memory. Báthory herself makes that case — and/or Dussault does personally, in a show that frequently pokes the fourth wall to remind the audience that this is a contested narrative.
Báthory (1560-1614) is in the Guinness Book of World Records as the most prolific female murderer in recorded history, and it's precisely the recording of that history that becomes the subject of Blood Nocturne. Did Báthory really torture and kill 650 maidens in a vain attempt to suck the youth from their blood? In the play, Báthory argues that she was a victim of manipulation during her lifetime and sensationalized storytelling after her death.
The meta-theatrical jokes and references get big laughs, but they also break the otherwise taut mood of a play that sounds and looks stunning, with production values far beyond what you'd expect for a Fringe show. This ensemble-created piece is wickedly entertaining, with substantive heft and superb performances all around. Put it on your must-see list.