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'Comic Potential' exemplifies SOU theater

Imagine a future in which everything has changed except human nature. Androids called actoids play roles in corny TV soap operas. But television is still a vast wasteland ruled by power-dressing tyrants who pander to the lowest common denominator.

What would happen in such a future if a beautiful actoid showed signs of becoming human? What if an idealistic young writer recognized the actoid's blooming humanity and fell in love with her? And just what does it mean to be human, anyway?

It sounds a bit familiar, with echoes from Pinocchio to Blade Runner.

But seen through the dark, dystopian prism of an Alan Ayckbourn, it shines with surprising luster. The Southern Oregon University Theatre Department's crackerjack new production adds a high patina to the shine.

As Comic Potential, directed by Dale Luciano, opened Thursday night in SOU's black box theater to less than the full house it deserves, a knowledgeable, theater-going friend remarked, SOU plays are the best-kept secret in Southern Oregon entertainment.

— Hear, hear.

The direction was tight, the acting sharp, the sets imaginative and effective. In the three-quarter-thrust configuration, the room feels much like the fondly remembered Black Swan at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. A turntable-like device on stage even enables quick changes of Paul Michael Garcia's delightful scenes.

Taken as a whole, you almost forget you're watching a student production.

In tragedy you can be off a tad, as Laurence Olivier famously explained, and the audience will never know the difference. But if you're off in comedy, the thing dies utterly.

April Lowe gives us an actoid, Jacie Triplethree, that at the play's start is a creature of circuits and servo-mechanisms, a smiling robot. The first crack in the facade is a big laugh (there is something quintessentially human about laughter, as the play's title hints). As Lowe builds Jamie's Pygmalion arc, it's as if she's recapitulating the history of the women's movement, from stepping outside a stereotype to forging a new identity.

With Ayckbourn's writing and Lowe's acting, this is more fun than it sounds.

The action begins when a malfunctioning actoid on the set of Hospital Hearts has a problem with his voice module and says he wants to umputate a patient's foot at the uncle.

When Jacie, whose real name, or identification number, is JC-F31-333, laughs at the mishaps, she has in effect moved beyond her programming, and we're off and running.

Peter Diseth, who is terrific as Jacie's lover, Adam Trainsmith, will make you think of a cross between a young Tom Hanks and Quentin Tarantino.

Kelsi Knudsen is outstanding as man-crushing TV exec Carla Pepperbloom, and Craig Jessen shines as hard-drinking Chandler Tate, a former Hollywood wunderkind reduced to directing weepy TV pap.

Although Comic Potential is a comedy and plays like one in all respects, it is other things, too.

Among them, a rousing satire on television, an amusing love story and a philosophical puzzle with delightful asides on romance and the secret of slapstick.

Although there were a few flat spots in the second act, this is overall a spot-on production of a hot play. If you haven't gone to SOU for a play, now's the time.

Photo courtesy of SOU Theatre Arts Department Peter Diseth as Adam Trainsmith and April Lowe as Jacie Triplethree star in ?Comic Potential,? playing at Southern Oregon University.