We Like American Music 

Hand2Mouth: Taking Portland Theater to the Next Level with Their Tribute to American Music, Repeat After Me.

The Scene

It must be frustrating to be a part of Portland's experimental theater world: Convinced you're doing good work—great work, even—yet constantly brought up short by the fact that while most people in Portland will tell you they value the city's artistic community, the sentiment doesn't always translate to asses in seats.

Never mind that the theater is where you'll find some of the brightest members of this much-touted "creative class" of ours, people who are genuinely committed to thinking deeply about our culture, to starting conversations about war, politics, gender, race—and never mind that other cities pride themselves on the quality and diversity of their theater options. Portland's original theater options are surprisingly limited, given the creative bent of this town.

It's not that there aren't interesting things happening on the fringes in Portland. Liminal Performance Group's roving lecture-opera, The Theory of Love, opens this weekend—if the press materials are anything to go by, this will be a smart, thoughtful explication of the (other) L-word, from the folks who brought you 2005's installation The Resurrectory. The fantastic Sojourn Theatre, meanwhile, is preparing for a new site-specific project that's scheduled to open at the Wentworth Subaru dealership in June.

These shows, though, are regrettably few and far between (it's been about a year since anything new has premiered from either Liminal or Sojourn)—shows of this caliber are the exception, rather than the rule. One acclaimed young company wants to change that: Hand2Mouth Theatre is aggressively pursuing a higher bar of engagement and investment in Portland's experimental theater scene.

The Company

Hand2Mouth was founded in 2000 by Jonathan Walters, a former Army brat with a background in Polish street theater and an interest in movement and puppetry. The company has four permanent members—Walters, Faith Helma, Erin Leddy, and Julie Hammond—and from all accounts, they've been churning out engaging, adventurous work since day one.

Their production of The Wild Child, a play about feral children that featured a puppet as the main character, won a 2003 Drammy (local theater award) for best ensemble performance. Last spring's City of Gold, a madcap exploration of gold lust and pioneer hysteria (with healthy doses of sex and rock 'n' roll), turned up again at PICA's TBA Festival.

One thing distinguishing Hand2Mouth—aside from Walters' expansive vision—is their commitment to being part of the national theater scene. With ties to Chicago, New York, and Seattle, Hand2Mouth is actively canvassing to put themselves—and Portland—on the map. They're committed to fostering connections between Portland and like-minded theater companies in other cities, which will in turn (hopefully) draw more touring companies through the city.

A meaningful performing arts scene, though, may be impossible without a facility dedicated to housing touring and local productions. The Someday Lounge deserves to be commended for picking up some slack in that regard, hosting an eclectic variety of music and theater, though the size of the space limits what can be done there. Just a few blocks from the Someday is the four-story building in which Hand2Mouth performs, which has slowly but surely become an integral part of Portland's experimental theater community.

The Building

The Goldsmith Building, a former office building in Old Town, is becoming something of an arts hub: A "creative community," in the words of developer David Gold. The Portland Art Center—a nonprofit gallery and community resource center—was invited into the space in 2005 as an anchor tenant, in hopes that other creative types would follow... and follow they have. The Goldsmith is now home to Floating World Comics, as well as an assortment of graphic designers, photographers, painters, sculptors, ceramists, and other businesses.

The first time I set foot in the building was about a year and a half ago, for Fever Theater's I Am a Superhero. At that point, the Goldsmith was essentially an empty office building, in which Fever had staked out a corner of the office to perform their show. In the months since then, much of the space has been converted to studios. Fever, Liminal, and Hand2Mouth have all performed there, frequently incorporating aspects of the unusual space into performance installations.

"The important story, though, is really the neighborhood," says Gold. "There's just so much stuff going on." He's referring, of course, to the many other artsy/hip business up and down 5th Avenue: Backspace, Just Be/Compound Gallery, Ground Kontrol, not to mention rumors that even more artistic facilities may be in the works.

It makes sense that Hand2Mouth should find themselves in this milieu, given Walters' passion for cross-pollination. Their new show, featuring the set and lighting work of guest designers from New York and sound mixing from DJ Brokenwindow, opens in the Goldsmith this weekend.

The Show

Repeat After Me is described in Hand2Mouth's press releases as "one part karaoke singalong gone wrong, one part dance theater, and one part nightmare."

The show consists of a series of musical numbers—all popular American songs—remixed and recontextualized, performed by cast members to Nancy Ellis' choreography.

Hand2Mouth is quick to stress, though, that this is no musical revue. "We're not doing a research paper on American music," says Walters. "This show is not just about listening to songs. It's about us trying to talk about American music."

What began as an investigation of American roots music ended up taking them in an unexpected direction: toward KWJJ, Portland's country music station.

"We started listening to country music as comic relief," Erin Leddy told me. A fascination soon developed with the explicit, political nature of popular songs: songs about 9/11, about patriotism, about supporting the troops.

"We found ourselves listening to songs we disagreed with... and starting to get into it," said Leddy, still sounding bemused by the phenomenon. The result: a show that explores American popular music, past and present, in an attempt to extrapolate some insight into our common culture.

People who saw the show in its early stages challenged Hand2Mouth to do more than simply identify jingoistic or patriotic themes in popular music. "They said, 'Try to make us wonder why someone would sing "Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue." Try to make us love America.'"

I've only seen part of the show, but it was clear even from a rehearsal that Hand2Mouth took the challenge to heart. It would be easy to take an ironic, hipper-than-thou approach to their material—but Hand2Mouth hasn't gotten as good as they are by taking the easy route. They don't simply parody the songs used in their show: They "own" them (to borrow a term ensemble members frequently used when talking about the production), in strange, often provocative ways.

Walters summed up his hopes for Portland theater in an email: "I wish I could go out any weekend (and not have to wait for the TBA Festival), and see something that would leave me buzzing for weeks. I want that to be the reality here, and I hope we are part of trying to get to that."

I think they are: Based on what I've seen, Hand2Mouth is doing their part to create meaningful, exciting new work. Now all that remains is for you to go see it. Repeat After Me opens Thursday, April 12 in the Goldsmith Performance Lab at 20 NW 5th. Shows Thursday-Sunday at 8 pm, $10-15, through April 29; call 235-5284 for reservations.

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