Stark Raving Theater is a classic reminder of what makes really good theater: funny, enjoyable dialogue.
"The Cold Comedy Concoction," a collection of four new one-acts, is low budget, low tech and wildly funny. And it’s new. The playwrights all have Portland roots, and the four actors are all locals, as well. After watching imported, boring productions, it is extremely refreshing to watch the local and successful phenomenon Stark Raving Theater has given us with this collection of plays.
The only weakness in this conglomeration is the choice to have different directors, with differing degrees of competency, directing pieces by differing authors. This led to a loss of continuity that would have been welcome, considering the ensemble nature of the evening as the same four actors were used in every piece. But the transitions helped to stitch over this gap: costume changes were done onstage, with the actors scurrying frantically from exit to exit, resetting props and shouting at each other.
All four pieces test the boundaries of absurdity. The first piece, "Empirical," written by William S. Gregory, has a wonderful Oscar Wilde-inspired dialogue that becomes more important as the piece progresses. The nuances of aristocratic humor were hard to follow at times, evidenced by the snoring gentlemen to my right. The lines were rushed in the interests of time, and starting the evening with a bang. This led to the unfortunate steamrolling of some very witty dialogue, ruminating about the peculiarities of the human race. But the progressive twists in the plot and, by extension, the setting of the world were enjoyable and well executed.
After intermission, once the audience had seen enough to want to stay, the worst of the lot was rolled out. "Principal and the Pee," by Steven Karam, had some interesting Bush/Kerry dynamics that were never fully developed, and the absurd world it was placed in had potential that was not fully used. This is a play that would benefit from a few revisions. The directing had a few interesting choices, but tripped itself frequently over the cumbersome script. The acting, as a result, was unnecessarily flamboyant and, at times, flat. But for the weakest link in the chain, it was still enjoyable to watch, which is all you could ask for in a night out at the theater.
The last play, "SpudToppers," by Todd Pozycki, was great in the way that baked potatoes are great – all the good stuff is in the middle. The exposition was mildly interesting, but pretty tame. The ending saw an absurd character take an unnecessary turn to the manic, but this may have been a directing choice, and not a writing choice. Where this play really excelled was in the crazy middle, when we could see the characters we had already been introduced to interacting for brief moments of hilarity.
At the end of the night, everyone had a smile on their face. "Cold Comedy Concoction" is only playing through Jan. 22. If you think all the theater in Portland sucks, go see Stark Raving this weekend and they will prove you wrong.