“Did I miss something?” a man asked me as I walked out of Hand2Mouth’s Psychic Utopia at New Expressive Works. Whatever the reason for his disruption—genuine confusion? ill-advised flirting?—it cut into the static reverie the play had left me in. My tolerance for male bullshit, though it’s always been low, has of late plummeted to zero, and it’s not often that a performance makes me unequivocally happy and momentarily chilled out.
Had he missed something? Obviously he had.
“Yes,” I said, and walked away.
Before that strange man killed my vibe, I’d been completely wrapped up in Psychic Utopia, which mines Oregon’s history of intentional communities and out ’n’ out cults—we are, after all, the home of Rajneeshpuram—but is less interested in the macabre dealings of Manson family horror than the stories of real people who gave up their lives, their families, and in some cases, their sense of autonomy, to join these experiments in group living. The play is a fictive composite drawn from real-life accounts, depicted with deep nuance, subtle humor, and zero judgment by a skilled ensemble of actors that contains no weak links. Throughout, there is a permeating sense of existential anxiety, of dual longings for community and meaning within secular culture. The material is relatable and vast, but it’s made accessible through light audience interaction, as a sense of trust builds between the viewers and the actors. You also get a warm towel upon entering the performance space, which smells like a spa, so if you don’t walk out happy about that at the very least, I can’t help you!
THAT SAID, while I have a high threshold for woo-woo exercises, up to and including sustained eye contact with strangers (it’s really not that bad!), if you get squirmy about anything resembling participatory theater, Psychic Utopia may not be the play for you. But maybe that’s not a bad thing. Because despite what all manner of needlessly facile and needlessly opaque productions would imply, theater, like therapy, should make you work a little, but not too much. Psychic Utopia hits the sweet spot between two loathsome extremes—it’s generous without being dumb, and complex without being forbidding. It’s a delicate balance Hand2Mouth manages more reliably than any other theater company in Portland, and once you’ve seen it, it’s a joyful experience when you find it again.
So, yes, there are some participatory moments that might feel awkward in this play. But the effort will be worth it. If you want to have the most interesting time possible, go along with them, or risk missing the point altogether.