Every year, the Stumptown Improv's organizers Leon Anderson, Jed Arkley, and Erin Jean O’Regan hit the festival stage with energy so huge and kicks so high that it's beginning to feel like a running gag. But while in previous years the co-founder/hosts bantered and joked, this year they were unbelievably tight—exploding from the curtains of Curious Comedy to pump up the crowd and thank sponsors, and then disappearing like a gang of will-o'-wisps. We always want to note that O’Regan is a Mercury sportswriter. But her high kicks are all her own.
Now in its sixth year, Stumptown Improv remains my favorite comedy festival in Portland. Wm. Steven Humphrey and I attended a few weekend shows to check out the talent and get our chuckle on. Here's what we thought:
FRIDAY: Of the Friday shows, Vancouver, BC's Fistful of Kicks were my most anticipated group. Known for their anime and martial art improvisations, the troupe broke out some impressive shoulder riding and cheerleading lifts during their Giant Mech-themed performance. The intro was especially charming since it involved various troupe members jumping in to describe a sci-fi anime's disjointed opening credit scenes ("Zoom in on a guy with blue hair, looking at the stars!") while a snippet of Yoko Kanno's "Tank!" played. I'm not sure if Fistful's set made sense to anyone not familiar with anime tropes, but their stage fights and stunts seemed to award them, at least, a level of awe, and there were more than a few loudly-laughing anime fans who seemed to be having the time of their lives.
Also on the 7 pm bill, local troupe Broke Gravy struggled a little to find their flow after a weird prompt ("Indoor sex" courtesy of "Vivian"), but finally clicked on a therapy scene between a father, his two sons, and a therapist. Since Broke Gravy is only three men this necessitated all three to shuffle in a circle—a wild and hilarious musical chairs with too many chairs—as they took on new personas, and put the audience in stitches.
Friday's 8:30 show was kind of a mess. Tears in the Tar looked like cherubs on stage, but their bible dip improv (which took prompts from Okay Fine Whatever by Courtenay Hameister, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City by Nick Flynn, and a sound engineer manual) never built to anything satisfying. Likewise disappointing was Dark Side of the Room who never really hit their stride, despite their promising premise: imagining the cut scenes of Black characters noticeably missing from classic films. The Princess Bride seemed like an ideal movie to riff on, but that's also what makes improv such dangerous theatrical art. Sometimes you have quality performers and a funny idea, and nothing connects. SUZETTE SMITH
SATURDAY: Saturday's 7 pm show was a juggernaut of back-to-back laughs, and showed how, when the magic is happening, improv is the comedy genre to beat. First up was Philadelphia’s The Future, whose confident, laid-back style got a ton of laughs with set-ups as disparate as the problems that arise from nailing a religious thesis to a church door to the problems that arise while performing surgery on yourself. I loved the trust they had in each other, and the hilarious way they would throw out challenges, absolutely sure that their fellow performers would pick up the ball, score a touchdown, and spike the ball in the opposing team’s stupid face!!! (No one had a ball spiked in their face during this performance.) They were absolutely great.
Headlining the show was Coko & Daphne, a Toronto-based pair who really delivered the Black girl magic. Their style hearkens back to the comedy duos of yore (Martin & Lewis, Abbott & Costello), but thankfully not so white and male. Coko was the more thoughtful/serious of the two (though still wickedly funny) while Daphne portrayed the over-the-top characters, such as an amorous book store security guard whose bluster hides a sensitive soul. There’s a ton of smart, psychic energy between these two, even when Daphne’s gut-busting characters send Coko into face-hiding gales of laughter. Nobody blames you, Coko! We’re right there with you. WM. STEVEN HUMPHREY
SUNDAY: It’s daunting to get an audience on a Sunday night, but Stumptown had a healthy crowd, perhaps due to the addition of Souljas (Carl Tart and Lamar Woods of White Women), joined by Ronnie Adrian (also of White Women).
Having Tart, Woods, and Adrian perform first raised the bar for everyone who followed. Souljas performed without pause, segueing seamlessly into a series of ordinary scenarios that nevertheless led to incredible punchlines. There was a moment when Tart (playing a husband) asked Adrian (wife-style) to sit on a milk crate and listen to him. Adrian began painstakingly taking imaginary records out of the crate. When Tart protested, Adrian replied testily, "If an album slips into my butt crack, I'm gonna be mad." Souljas totally destroyed.
Pressure was on for Mondo @ PAM, a collaboration between Kickstand Comedy's main "CVLT" ensemble and the Portland Art Museum. It was a bit of a surprise to have the PAM's Curator of Northwest Art, Grace Kook-Anderson, get up on stage to introduce two paintings from PAM's collection. As an arts editor, I loved that! As an audience member, I was blown away by the efforts of the nine Kickstand improvisers once she left the stage. At festivals like Stumptown, there's often a disconnect in experience level between touring groups and home troupes, but Mondo did a terrific job representing Portland's vibrant improv scene. My MVPs were Craig McCarty and Michael Zimmer who opened as two guys with blanket collections, trying to decide how to store them (burying them?). Kickstand co-founder Dylan Reiff also caught my eye as he repeatedly glued set-ups together, and re-enforced scenes with a bottomless catalog of secondary and background characters. SUZETTE SMITH