Frozen Comforts 

Gary Winter's Pointlessly Didactic Cooler.

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In these post-Christian times, consolation is a free agent. While most folks I know turn to Gossip Girl for comfort, we might be better off seeking out the nearest walk-in refrigerator. Or so Gary Winter suggests in Cooler, a new play receiving its world premiere from defunkt theatre, Portland's go-to company for intellectually restless drama.

You want a plot? Here're four people hiding away in a cooler from nothing in particular. You want personae? Try four characters in search of an inner life, or any detail to distinguish them from each other. You want dialogue? Chew on these Immanuel Kant quotations while they sort that part out. So, no, Cooler isn't looking to satisfy the scorecard I typically bring to the theater to tally my fun, which is fine—so long as there's a point. Playwright, please?

"When people see my play," Winter says on defunkt's website, "they say they didn't understand it, but they say they had a very powerful experience. That's the point."

Oh, dear. Well, my experience wasn't powerful, which may be because I understood it all too well (the play's about obfuscation and creative cowardice, or that's where my mind went anyway). But I did enjoy watching Cyndi Rhoads' extraordinarily sharp performance. Given a paper-thin character, Rhoads demonstrated incredibly taut listening skills that helped spring the pompously didactic dialogue surrounding her to greater action than it deserved. What she did for this production was nothing short of brain-to-mouth resuscitation.

Which only points to this unlikely truth: Beneath its swollen temples, this play does boast a healthy pulse. Winter is driven by something here, though he hasn't bothered to give his concern a shape solid enough to help us share it. Instead, he's content to relay his anxieties through reverent nods to Chekhov's Three Sisters and Beckett's napkin scribbles. Near the end, when the dialogue gives way to a setpiece involving a very David Byrne-cum-Ionesco-styled dance number, it's possible to see how this could be a powerful experience for someone in the audience. But when I looked around, I only saw bemusement.

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