Over the years, local fringe stalwarts defunkt theatre (lowercase and bad spelling intentional) and Theatre Vertigo have evolved in different directions. defunkt has become small and tight, with a four-person member base as skilled in the technical aspects of the craft as the performative. Meanwhile, Theatre Vertigo has blown up, somehow compiling an impressive list of at least 15 capable company actors. Friends with each other and possessing complementary skill sets, a collaboration between the two companies was imminent, and has finally arrived with Like I Say, Len Jenkin's play that includes a built-in puppet show and a goofy ongoing side story about a character named Coconut Joe. Needless to say, I was more excited about this production than any show in recent memory. And if what I actually saw hadn't been three hours long, my excitement might almost have been justified.

As directed by defunkt's James Moore, Like I Say is a dreary, ambient, morbidly reflective affair. I haven't read Jenkin's script, but I'm almost convinced that he envisioned his play's set piece, the Hotel Splendide, as a slightly peppier abode. Its inhabitants are down on their luck, sure, but they've also found a respite here from the outside world that has treated them shabbily; a place to commiserate and get drunk with fellow derelicts. Here, the married duo of ambiguously European puppeteers, Leon and Tanya Vole (Neal Starbird and Camille Cettina) can construct an elaborate puppet stage in the main room without resistance. Here, the drunken, disfigured painter Schwarzberg (Erik James) can cover entire walls with his cryptic paintings, and here, the struggling writer Isaiah Sandoval (a perfectly cast Gary Norman) can spin his kooky tales of Coconut Joe to a captive audience.

Isaiah, in a typical move from a writer who envisions himself as larger than life, has a "nurse," Rose (Julie Starbird), whose primary job seems to be chiding him about his drinking habits. Unpaid and unloved, she strikes up a feeble romance with Little Junior (Tom Moorman), an employee of the hotel. She's cantankerous and snide; he's tender and loves animals. What do they see in each other? Nothing, as evidenced by Moorman and Starbird's performances—yet, the script demands they hook up, so they do.

Other female characters hurl themselves at Isaiah, again for reasons that remain unclear. Tanya Vole tells him she loves him. The hotel's landlord, Helena (Melody Bridges), also hits on him. Why? Because they can, I guess. Through it all, Leon Vole takes the entire first act to construct an elaborate puppet stage in the background, an extended bout of commanding physical foreshadowing that culminates in a disappointingly short, bafflingly pointless puppet show—though Neal Starbird's puppetry skills are surprisingly sharp.

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"It's a lot of work, this kind of misery," says Isaiah, and it is. From the exquisite detail of the puppets (with help from Tears of Joy Puppet Theatre) to Schwarzberg's amazingly detailed paintings that adorn one side of the stage, "deftigo" (defunkt + Theatre Vertigo) has lingered (and lingered) on every possible, brooding, physical detail. It's impressive, and depressing. Blessed relief comes in Isaiah's story-within-a-play about Coconut Joe (Keith Cable), a hapless coconut buyer whose trip to peruse a particularly high-quality crop launches him into a crazy pulp adventure on the high seas. Here, the Coconut Joe chorus of Nathan Gale, Amy Newman, Darius Pierce, and Jesse Young have a ball racing through the endless slew of wacky characters Joe meets on his journey. They hustle electric fans out on the stage to create snow effects, brutalize sock monkeys, and create general hilarious chaos with all manner of props and costume accessories. Their infectious energy and good cheer sharply contrasts with the "real world" of the play, highlighting the ponderous tedium of the hotel's main action.

The best part of the "deftigo" hookup is that it frees up each party to do what they do best: defunkt, the behind-the-scenes work; Vertigo, the acting work. This is a nearly unprecedented coup in the cash/resources-strapped world of Portland non-professional theater (typically, fringe company members have to serve many roles, as opposed to doing one task, and doing it well), and I hope Like I Say isn't the last time it happens. Naturally flushed and excitable with the thrill of collaborative possibility, deftigo has concocted a heaving, occasionally entertaining play with no awareness of its own indulgence. Future projects will have some perspective, and, god willing, an editor.