CIRCUS CONTRAPTION: Unpredictable, almost unimaginable delight
Kooterville
Theater Schmeater
Through June 5.

Train of Thought > New York
Northwest Actors Studio
Through June 12.

Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet)
ArtsWest
Through June 12.

Circus Contraption's Grand American Traveling Dime Museum
Sand Point Magnuson Park
Through June 27.

Kooterville fares better than most first-time sketch comedy ensembles, largely because some of the members have been honing their chops in other groups (Bald Faced Lie's Karen Gruber, in particular, has become a whiz at merging lunatic urges with sweet innocence). The best sketches have multiple layers: Two women go to a restaurant where they pluck sushi from a disgruntled human menu wearing a see-through plastic dress--comic bits come from the unhygienic scenario, the diners' conversation, and from the bizarre hostesses playing music in the corner. Music gives an added oomph to several sketches, from big-butted a cappella mall singers to surly punk rockers. But Kooterville hasn't yet achieved synergy--that almost subconscious awareness of each other's rhythms that can give theater an almost athletic grace. The women of Kooterville are capable players still learning to play together. They'll undoubtedly get tighter over the course of their run, but--if they aren't just a one-off side project--their next show promises to really take off.

Three-person comedy team Train of Thought is even more raw. Though there's some clever writing in their sort-of-New York-themed show, it's often squandered by obvious acting choices and a meandering pace (a director who isn't also a performer might give the show a sharper edge; I know sketch troupes like to think of themselves as rock bands, but even rock bands need producers). Still, they're a likable trio, and when they click together they suggest great things---the idea of a restaurant that serves endangered species isn't fresh, but watching an oily waiter wiggle a cuddly manatee in an outraged diner's face is pretty funny.

The cast of Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) has some synergy going on; they're all acting in the same world and they seem to enjoy themselves, which gives the cheesy play more liveliness than it may deserve. Hoping to revitalize her sidetracked academic career, a meek assistant professor named Constance (Karen Nelson) magically enters the worlds of Othello and Romeo and Juliet, hoping to prove that Shakespeare rewrote a preexisting pair of comedies and, in the process, turned spunky heroines into tragic figures. Her arrival sends the plots of the plays spinning in various farcical directions and there's a girl-on-girl kiss that may scandalize or titillate anyone born before 1950. Desdemona is like a competent sitcom, clever without being especially smart, insightful, or even coherent (Constance seeks the author of source material for the tragedies, so she enters into the plays themselves...?). If you think juxtaposing iambic pentameter and modern colloquial speech is funny in and of itself, you'll probably enjoy Desdemona. If you want something more, you'll find it vapid. But it is what it is, and the cast and director embrace it appropriately (aside from some momentum-killing scene changes toward the end).

There's a moment, when the lights go down, before the movie starts or the curtains rise, when the promise of unpredictable and almost unimaginable delight hangs in the air. Circus Contraption sustains that feeling through its entire show. From scraps of cloth, gaudy paint, and well-toned muscle, this rag-tag troupe conjures an imaginative landscape that lights the brain up like a Christmas tree--or, given the salacious bent of the show, like the red-light district in Amsterdam. And talk about synergy--it's as if this bunch of aerialists, roustabouts, and musicians have listened to each other's innards with a stethoscope; they respond to the twitch of each other's sinews. It helps that the physical spectacle is driven further and faster by a fantastic band playing a lurid hurdy-gurdy hybrid of Fellini movie soundtracks and Tom Waits. It helps even more that everyone wears multiple hats--chanteuse Pinky D'Ambrosia, for example, not only sings like a bird, she plays a mean trumpet, and tap dances to boot, while drummer Bunny LaMonte also swings on the trapeze and challenges audience members to a bicycle race.

Circus Contraption's Grand American Traveling Dime Museum features acrobatics, slide shows, stilt-walking, juggling, rope-climbing, tormenting devils, smutty French postcards brought to life, singing pickled homunculi, and much more. The show is cheaper and less pretentious than Teatro ZinZanni or Cirque du Soleil, happy to pander to anyone's baser interests, and has an utterly delightful finale, achieved with the cheapest of means. You will want to run away from your everyday world and join the circus.