VIRGINIA JACK: My new imaginary BFFs.
  • Virginia Jack
  • VIRGINIA JACK: My new imaginary BFFs.

The Stumptown Improv Festival cruised through town this weekend, with Portland's theater and comedy fans packing the Milagro Theatre, where improvisers ran on and off the stage, and more jokes were told about quinces than seemed plausible (Oregon Quinces sponsored; also, do people eat quinces? The mind boggles). Temple Lentz covered night one of the festival, and I took over for Friday and Saturday night's shows. Here's what stood out from Stumptown's second year:

More duos, please! Improv is often most entertaining to an audience when it's carefully structured—see: the antithesis of watching strangers play never-ending freeze tag in the basement of the student union, which is arguably (and unfortunately) where many people form their opinions about improv. While some groups at the festival did veer into the endless freeze tag zone once or twice, the duos, by and large, did not. John Breen and Beau Brousseau's two-man improvised action movie, Bang + Burn, was hilarious all the way through, a caperin' send-up of every James Bond cliche ever. I'd heard good things about Vancouver's Virginia Jack, and as soon as Nicole Passmore and Briana Rayner took the stage in coordinated pug 'n' kitten button-downs, I knew that the rumors were true.

Each of the duos at Stumptown had a clear format you could tell they'd rehearsed. And it paid off: Virginia Jack's one-act play about an orchestra pit had fleshed-out characters (truly) and some actual continuity, plus a prolongued Britney Spears bit. Minneapolis' Ferrari McSpeedy (Mike Fotis and Joe Bozic) kept their performance going at a breakneck clip through short, short scenes and crazy pronouncements ("I live in a house that's full of ghosts and there's lightning all the time."), plus grown men trying to curtsy.

Hip-hop improv sounds potentially awful, but it is not—at least when NYC's North Coast is the group responsible. North Coast put on one of the festival's strongest performances Friday night, with improvisers Monique Mose, Rachel Rosenthal, and Jessica McKenna freestyling to excellent backbeats, about doctor's office waiting rooms and skeletons and ancient issues of Highlights magazine (could it change the world?).

NORTH COAST: Rachel Rosenthal of North Coast—improviser, freestyle rapper, hilarious lady.
  • Ryan Kelly Coil
  • NORTH COAST: Rachel Rosenthal of North Coast—improviser, freestyle rapper, hilarious lady.

The Liberators are one of the best improv groups anywhere. If you've seen them perform, you know it's true. But it's especially clear when they're back-to-back with acts from New York and LA (like the excellent Magnet Theater's touring company, and the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre's JV; both performed after the Liberators Saturday night). Here's a group I could watch play infinite freeze tag without getting bored. Whether they're gamely pretending to be teenage BFFs on a road trip together ("That's dumb, Caitlin!") or declaring themselves "humanoids with no faces," the Liberators consistently deliver face-crumpling, tear-inducing laughs. Also, Shelley McLendon has a face made for improv. She can make any scene funny through her eye-squints alone. It's an honor and a privilege to be around such crazy faces. You do you, the Liberators!

A bigger venue wouldn't be a terrible idea. Or just more venues and staggered shows! The Stumptown Improv Festival is officially a thing now, and word's getting out! Nearly every show I went to (and I went to six shows, if you're wondering what I did this weekend) was sold out, and at each one, every seat was full, which meant some audience members were sitting on the floor. This is a good problem to have, but that's not a great solution! Milagro Theatre's intimate setting is ideally suited to improv, but as the festival grows, a venue change might be well-advised. Better yet, if the festival continues to bring in more out-of-town performers, it might make sense to copy what the city's comedy festivals have done, with simultaneous performances at a couple different venues to thin out crowds and inject some variety into the experience.