Theater may be a noble and soul-satisfying professional pursuit, but it can also be kind of a downer. Or at least it was for Colin Johnson. The 26-year-old studied theater and film in school and soon found himself at Oakland’s Round Belly Theater, performing in gritty, sad plays — “real Greek tragedy-type stuff,” he said. But in the face of the recession, he and two friends — Joshua Han and Brian Quakenbush, who also had roots at Round Belly — found themselves wanting to do something that would lift people up. “We sort of figured, we can do classical tragedy theater, or we can write funny little short things where people can just come and have a great time,” Johnson said. So they came up with a side project that was about as far from what they’d been doing as they could imagine: absurdist sketch comedy.
The guys refer to their new show, Mad Stash, as a “comedic explosion,” which sounds about right: Unlike other sketch shows, Stash adopts a seamless, stream-of-consciousness format that gives audience and performer scarcely a moment to breathe between bits. Music, video, and live action are integrated so that when one sketch ends, it flows immediately into the next. A video, for example, will feature a character, and once the screen is wheeled away, the same character will appear onstage, ready to begin a completely new sketch. Thematically, Han, Quakenbush, and Johnson — who together form BattleStache Studio — tend to favor genre spoofs, quirky characters, and downright absurdism. A live good-cop/bad-cop interrogation sketch gives way to a French Connection-style film trailer, which leads directly to something else. Characters reappear throughout the troupe’s approximately ninety-minute shows, which are made up of twelve or thirteen distinct pieces lasting up to ten minutes long. Meanwhile, the house band, Korolenko, serves as both soundtrack and set piece.
“We’d been seeing a lot of sketch comedy, and we kind of wanted to find a way to shock the format a little,” Johnson said. He, Quakenbush, and Han looked to sketch comedy classics like The Kids in the Hall, Saturday Night Live, Mr. Show, and tried to improve upon them to create something that would be both dynamic and refined live. “Sketch comedy shows tend to be pretty crude in terms of structure, so we wanted to do something with more polish.”
That said, Mad Stash is decidedly shoestring. The whole thing took about two and a half months to put together, from inception to execution, and it’s essentially still a three-man operation. Han produces, and all three appear in the show. They snagged the band because Johnson’s wife is in it.
Regardless, Han’s got big ambitions: “It’s like nothing that I’ve really seen done before,” he said. “If it goes off without a hitch, you’ll get to be part of this bizarrely comic universe.” Mad Stash runs Thursdays through Saturdays, January 27-29 and February 3-5, at K&S Ranchito (839 55th St., Oakland). 8 p.m., $10-$15. BattleStacheStudios.Wordpress.com