Fertile Ground Review: Pep Talk

Hand2Mouth shows theater nerds the inspirational side of gym class.

I was never big on gym class. Self-conscious, unfamiliar with sports rules, picked last. It’s amazing how all that floods back when the players of Pep Talk usher us into a gym, sit us on benches, call roll and make us pop on team pinnies. Middle school, we meet again. But, hang on…the pinnies are purple with a sparkly band around the neck. Their logo is a unicorn with a mermaid tail. There’s only one kind, not two. I guess these are the clues that we’re really on Team Theater. So I can stop breathing into this bag.

peptalk

Pep Talk, the latest performance innovation from the ever-inventive Hand2Mouth Theatre, is part of both Fertile Ground and the Risk/Reward Festival this year. You may recognize “Coach Leddy” (Erin Leddy) for her vulnerable and brilliant 2011 solo show My Mind Is Like An Open Meadow. And correct me if I’m wrong, but I think I saw “Coach Hammond” (Julie Hammond) as the lead dancer in Isaac Lamb’s 2012 viral marriage proposal video, showing a great deal of team spirit. All four “coaches,” including Liz Hayden and Maesie Speer, are Hand2Mouth ensemble members and were in last year’s exhilarating Something’s Got Ahold of My Heart, a partially improvised rock musical that explored many facets of the meaning of love. The troupe toured that show to New York…and came home disappointed.

At a Risk/Reward preview panel discussion, “Coach” Maisie Speer admitted that H2M’s humbling run at New York’s La MaMa was the impetus for Pep Talk. Though the show earned positive review, it was apparently hampered by tech issues and so woefully under-attended that it closed early. “We came back just feeling kind of down,” Speer explained, “and we thought, why not look to the sports world and borrow some of their motivational tactics for theater, to cheer ourselves and everyone else up?”

Why not? No reason. So, decked out in retro Adidas athletic regalia, brandishing whistles and bullhorns and a soccer ball, the coaches call out audience members and each other with equal eagerness and candor—by last names, of course. “Sometimes you drop the ball. What are you gonna do, Kinnamon? That’s RIGHT. Pick it up!” cheers Coach Hammond as the four coaches all work the room in tandem. The managed pandemonium of multiple coaches yelling at multiple players really does feel a lot like gym class.

At other times (just like the darker side of gym class) one person’s really put on the spot. The coaches themselves lead these interactions by example, especially Coach Speer, who serves a self-imposed stint in the penalty box reciting all her faults, and Coach Leddy, who asks an audience member to critique her…well, her form. Leddy’s pointed questions and her silent gaze at this moment in the program are probably the most bracing elements of the whole show. In keeping with prior performances, she’s a master of mere presence and the surreal intimacy it can bring—even if between times she’s bellowing into a bullhorn.

Not to give too much away, but you will hear Chariots of Fire. You will see Mother Theresa (of all people). You’ll be treated to a word-for-word recitation of Al Davis’s most inspirational speech to the Oakland Raiders before a Super Bowl win (all the more pertinent on the day I saw the show: last Sunday). You’ll watch a “halftime show.” You’ll chant a cheer. And even if the gym environment has always made you feel like a fish out of water, you’ll be rooting for the unicorn mermaids—your team.

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A. L. Adams also writes the monthly column Art Walkin’  for  The Portland Mercury, and is  former arts editor of Portland Monthly Magazine. Read more from Adams: Oregon ArtsWatch | The Portland Mercury
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