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January 29th, 2014 REBECCA JACOBSON | Theater
 

Pep Talk (Hand2Mouth Theatre)

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.

perf_peptalks_4013MAMA SAID KNOCK YOU OUT: (From left) Maesie Speer, Julie Hammond, Liz Hayden and Erin Leddy. - IMAGE: Anna Campbell
We sit on hard benches under the fluorescent lighting of a gym in North Portland’s Peninsula Park Community Center, clad in violet jerseys bearing a mascot that seems to be half-unicorn, half-mermaid—a mermicorn, if you will. I clutch a purple-and-silver pompom. A giant label emblazoned “JACOBSON” is affixed to my chest. Earlier, I’d been summoned (“Johnson! Manson! Jacobson!”) to play a round of foosball before the audience. At this moment, the four-member ensemble—our quartet of coaches—pontificates about Wayne Gretzky. “Are they fucking with us?” my friend whispers. I’m unsure how to answer.

Pep Talk is the latest original work from Hand2Mouth, a plucky and innovative troupe that consistently challenges audience expectations and theater conventions. Here, it digs into the motivational culture of sports, and to the extent that the show takes place in a wood-paneled gymnasium and the performers wear candy-colored athletic garb, it’s transportive. But Pep Talk walks a fine and wobbly line: At times, the likable ensemble succeeds in genuinely hyping up the audience or winning our sympathies with stories of fears overcome. And then there are occasions when, as my friend said, they just seem to be fucking with us (if you don’t like shouting in unison, this isn’t the show for you).

At its best, Pep Talk harnesses its performers’ gifts for humor. On Jan. 26, as Julie Hammond spoke solemnly about heroes, Maesie Speer sat at a keyboard, her words beamed onto a double monitor. When The Hunger Games’ arrow-wielding Katniss Everdeen came up, Speer, in a beautiful moment of improvisation, simply typed “you=mockingjay.” Hammond, meanwhile, bounded about the court. “I am up here in shorts in January!” she whooped. “I am clearly trying to give you something!”

But what is that something? Instances of audience participation can spur more discomfort than amusement, and the show grows gratuitously self-referential toward the end. Technically, the kitchen-sink approach—multiple microphones, several screens, lights that occasionally cast looming shadows on the gym walls—splits our attention in too many directions. And, most crucially, the tension between the performers’ natural sincerity and the assaultive, blowhard nature of inspirational speeches is never reconciled, resulting in a consistent sense of unease.

Hand2Mouth often spends years developing its shows. This one has had seven months. To its credit, it starts to ask a number of compelling questions: Can coaches lead us to catharsis? What’s the nature of groupthink? How do we each move between roles as coach and player? In one bout of audience participation, Erin Leddy grilled a woman named Jan about failure. “We fail, but not always,” Jan said. Take note, Hand2Mouth—and keep playing.


SEE IT: Pep Talk is at Peninsula Park Community Center, 700 N Rosa Parks Way, 235-5284. 8 pm Fridays-Sundays and 3 pm Sundays through Feb. 16 (no show Feb. 7). $15-$20.

 
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