BEST OF THE FEST, Factory Theater. The two winning entries in this year’s “Shut Up and Laugh!” comedy festival may be a bit more restrained than last year’s, but they’re packed with substance. Gail Stern, victorious for the second year in a row, takes the proto feminism she toyed with last year and focuses it into a viciously funny lecture-demonstration called Merge. She’s here to answer one critical question: how do you date Gail Stern? Since she’s the director of a program for victims of rape and domestic violence, she explains, “You can fuck up on a dime on a date with me.” Stern gives real-life examples of how not to date her (one guy opined, “Sometimes you just have to call a woman a cunt”), then explores a world of female objectification that pollutes any chance of intimacy. Although the piece fizzles to a close, Stern’s unapologetic humor and candor are as refreshing as ice water in the face.

Christian Murphy packs a bit too much into Meditations, about a young, obscenely successful salesman discovering how empty his life of conspicuous consumption is. Though Murphy nicely captures the blinkered self-interest of undeserved privilege, his character’s enormous transformation in a mere 30 minutes is untenable, giving the piece a formulaic feel. A work in progress, Meditations needs many more ethical and psychological complications before it rings true.

–Justin Hayford