Hand2Mouth is a young-and-hungry ensemble theater company that is, paradoxically, the ‘old guard’ of the Portland (OR) experimental theater scene and has been making powerful new work for the last decade. The company returns to La MaMa January 10 to 20 with “Something’s Got Ahold of My Heart,” its newest creation, that wrestles with the yearning, euphoria and eviscerating tragedy of love. Weaving an energetic blend of 70’s pastiche, romantic comedy excerpts, dance theater, testimonials, original music and aggressive physicality, it invites its audience into a deeply emotional experience.
Hand2Mouth is a permanent ensemble, led by Artistic Director Jonathan Walters, which has been working together since 2000 to create new and original performances. The company has created 19 original productions to-date and has been a “godfather” to Portland’s now-burgeoning alternative theater scene. It was described by The Seattle Times as having “the kind of promise, fearlessness and energy that the American theater needs, and should encourage.” In New York, the company has been presented by La MaMa, Ontological Hysteric Incubator and 59e59 Theatres.
The energy of a Hand2Mouth performance is unmistakable. Jonathan Walters describes it as “going very fast and playfully through a deep theme.” To dissect the conundrum of love, Walters and his ensemble drew upon the tender and tumultuous pop culture of their parents’ generation, which included the songs of Fleetwood Mac, country love duets, and a host of over-the-top love songs. To this were added interviews, testimonials and found texts including movies scripts, Cosmo sex questionnaires and intimacy guidebooks, all exploring what it’s like to fall in love, be gloriously in the midst of it and break up from it.
Beyond its postmodernism, the piece contains deeply affecting stories that are presented in a style that suggests real time channeling of memories into the performance space. These stories are drawn from real life sources and range from falling in love, being stuck in love and looking back over love. One is the story (inspired by the story of rock star Stevie Nicks and her friend Robin Anderson) of two strikingly similar girls whose intense lifelong friendship began the day they wore the same skirt to a party. One of the inseparable pair dies tragically from cancer during the birth of her first baby, prompting her friend to take her place, marrying her bereaved husband and raising her child.
The performance is structured into three movements. The first is a scramble of scripts that skewer pop culture’s brightness and shininess. The second is storytelling, supported by live music. The third is an explosion of the concert form, filled with original songs, in which stories, texts and moments from the earlier two sections recur and ‘complete.’
The musical score includes original songs written by the ensemble (“Breaks My Heart,” “You’re the Only,” “Keep It Easy”) and compositions by Ash Black Buffalo, the nom de plume for Portland-based composer and experimental musician Jay Clarke. Clarke composes for film, dance and theater and is also a keyboardist from Delorean, a Portland rock group.
The script is created by the ensemble in collaboration with playwright Sarah Gancher, a member of the 2012 Ars Nova Play Group and the 2012-2014 Women’s Project Playwrights Lab and a collaborating playwright on The TEAM’s “Mission Drift” (PS 122 COIL Festival), which was nominated for two 2012 Drama League Awards.
Movement was developed with choreographer Allie Hankins, who copied pop culture movement sequences–how backup dancers move, how singers couple onstage in musical performances–and built them into a vocabulary of gestures. This concert vocabulary, which is normally writ large, will be compressed into a super-intimate space and magnified for added effect by the closeness of La MaMa’s First Floor Theater, which will be set up with the audience on two sides .
Jonathan Walters founded Hand2Mouth in 2000 after training with street theater troupe Teatr Biuro Podrozy in Poland. Company members have also trained new performance forms in London, New York, Denmark and Mexico City. Hand2Mouth performances are developed over months of exploration in which long form improvisation, endurance singing and rigorous personal research are employed. From these raw seeds, the company hones fragments into cohesive wholes, producing theater that could not typically be produced from scripted beginnings.
The company has received multiple Portland “Drammy” Awards, including for Outstanding Ensemble Performance and Outstanding Production and has been produced by leading contemporary arts centers including PICA’s Time Based Arts Festival (Portland), On the Boards (Seattle), Myrna Loy Center (Helena, MT), Bumbershoot (Seattle), the Network of Ensemble Theatres Summit and The Fury Factory Theatre Festival (San Francisco). It has toured to Festival Malta in Poznan, Poland and The National Autonomous University in Mexico City. As of this writing, the ensemble is engaged in a residency for technical development at EMPAC (the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center) of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY.
In NYC, productions of the ensemble have been presented by La MaMa (“Everyone Who Looks Like You,” a show about family, in 2010), Ontological Hysteric Incubator (“Undine,” a solo piece, in 2009) and 59e59 Theatres (“My Mind Is Like an Open Meadow,” 2012). The last was a solo show by company member Erin Leddy directed by Jonathan Walters. Leddy had collected over 20 hours of taped interviews with her actress-grandmother and used excerpts to compare their two lives and pinpoint her own journey as an actress. Elizabeth Vincentelli (New York Post) wrote, “In a culture obsessed with youth and the shiny next big thing, ‘My Mind’ — with its kind but unflinching look at aging — is an oddity to be treasured.” Theater Mania (Scott & Barbara Siegel) described it as “a sophisticated 65-minute show that uses just about every theatrical tool at Leddy’s disposal from music to dance to imaginative sound design.” Blogger Jon Sobel wrote, “this is a captivatingly creative show, truly something different.”
“Something’s Got Ahold of My Heart” is created and performed by ensemble members Matthew Dieckman, Julie Hammond, Liz Hayden, Faith Helma, Erin Leddy, and Maesie Speer. Lighting design is by Christopher Kuhl and Katelan Braymer. Scenic design is by Jeff Becker and sound design is by Casi Pacilio.
Hand2Mouth will perform “Something’s Got Ahold of my Heart” from January 10 to 20, 2013 at La MaMa E.T.C, Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 and Sundays at 2:30. To get tickets, visit the website www.lamama.org or call La MaMa at 212-475-7710. Tickets are $18 for general admission; students and seniors get $5 off.