The Cold Comedy Concoction
Stark Raving at the Coho Theatre, 2257 NW Raleigh, 232-7072, Thurs-Sat 8 pm, Sun 7 pm, through Jan 22, $10-18

In the thick of another long, gray, clammy Northwest winter, the good folks at Stark Raving have hatched on a simple yet novel idea: an evening of four short, light, original comedies commissioned to three local playwrights--William S. Gregory, Todd Pozycki, and high schooler Kelly Bartholomew--and one out-of-town writer, Stephen Karam.

Of this fairly impressive lineup, I was most intrigued going in by Bartholomew, if only because I would have killed to see one of my plays in high school produced by an actual, real-world theater. In a happy payoff to my anticipation, the young lass holds her own with the delirious modern fairytale Mixed Messages, in which a bizarre witch named Glacierella (Paige Jones) casts morality spells on a ragtag group of students on their way to a school function. When Roger (Joe Bolenbaugh) curses too much, Glacierella twists his vocal cords so he can only speak in verse, then makes goth boy Slay (Chris Murray) switch bodies with his preppy nemesis Beatrice (Saren Nofs-Snyder).

In Karam's equally inspired, slightly more refined The Principal and the Pee, a power-mad school administrator (Bolenbaugh) arms his janitors with guns so they can shoot "at the children with guns," and expels a lesbian student (Nofs-Snyder) for spreading an STD (Pink Eye). The absurd script works beautifully because the characters have no idea how ridiculous they are; unfortunately, director Michelle Seaton does, burying Karam's hilarious linguistic trickery in obnoxious overdrive pacing, as if she's doing a sex farce.

Otherwise, Comedy Concoction, is pure fun. In William S. Gregory's opening arctic adventure Empirical, two tea-sipping penguins (Jones and Nofs-Snyder) verbally decimate the human race, and Todd Pozycki's office nightmare Spud Toppers is a worthy concluding act. The strong four-person acting ensemble doffs their different characters with manic glee, with the surprising Jones stealing the show as the vamping Glacierella, and then again as a cheese-obsessed secretarial lunatic in Toppers. Their good energy is the key factor in making The Cold Comedy Concoction exactly what it was trying to be: a quick glimpse of sunlight to get us through a season of dark drudgery.