Living on the fringe

Hand2Mouth and Liminal prove cheap theater doesn’t have to suck.

Willamette Week, April 11, 2007
by Ben Waterhouse

Deep inside the labyrinthine bowels of the Goldsmith Building on Northwest 5th Avenue, there’s a cavernous, echoing room lined with the detritus of performances gone by. In the middle of that room, less than 20 feet apart, two of Portland’s finest fringe performance groups have set up shop. To the left is Liminal’s jumbled pile of audio and projection equipment. To the right, an expanse of wood flooring is surrounded by the costume racks and stray balloons of Hand2Mouth. Both companies have been rehearsing for months; both shows open this weekend.

But before the big showdown, let’s talk about what fringe theater is—and isn’t.

Like alternative music or independent film, it includes all underground entertainment that’s short-shrifted by the mainstream. In Edinburgh, it’s called “fringe.” In New York, it’s referred to as “off-“ or “off-off-Broadway.” In Portland, where most theater companies operate on budgets that would bring even the most minimalist of avant-garde playwrights to tears, the distinction is harder to make.

Here, everything feels likes it’s fringe.

But the truth is, there are perhaps only a dozen active groups locally who fit the London or NYC stereotype of “fringe”—producing unusual, mostly original work on a shoestring budget. Many of these companies produce work that is tedious, self-indulgent and otherwise difficult to sit through, but Liminal’s The Theory of Love and Hand2Mouth’s Repeat After Me show how to do fringe right. Here’s who they are, what they do and some lessons that their peers should learn from them:

The Players & The Plays

Liminal Performance Group: Founded in 1997 by a group of Trinity University classmates, Liminal’s performances combine performance and technology, often in unusual spaces, to thrilling effect. Liminal’s resident composer, John Berendzen, helms Theory of Love , a musical investigation into the “dangerously romantic” workings of love. Performed by “singing lecturers” David Abel and Leo Chapeau and accompanied by fragmentary video from members of the Metaplastic design group, Theory is a hymn, a dirge, a mating song, a conspiratorial conversation and a poignant confession that twists, inverts and repeats one musical phrase over and over to beautiful, hypnotic effect.

Hand2Mouth Theatre: Trained in the streets of Poland, Jonathan Walters returned to Portland in 2000 to found this highly physical and imaginative company that has won national recognition and toured Eastern Europe. Walters’ realization that much of the country disagrees with his definition of “great American music” inspired Repeat After Me . It’s a manic meeting of karaoke sing-off and lunatic pep rally that takes a new look at American self-identity by reinterpreting popular songs from “God Bless the U.S.A.” to “I Want You Back.” It’s a wild show—imagine a bunch of energetic but clueless aliens trying to audition for American citizenship based only on what they’ve heard on the radio—that forces the audience to give “The Bumper of My S.U.V.” a second chance.

The Lessons

Do what you do best, but do it better: Liminal, as the name implies, attempts to perform work that affects viewers at a subconscious level as well as entertaining their waking minds. For all its “woo-wooness,” it works. Although it abandons the interactive, installation format of many of the group’s previous productions, Theory still gets under your skin and stays there. Similarly, Repeat After Me continues Hand2Mouth’s tradition of energetic, musical theater but attempts to convey greater complexity of emotion. “This is a new idea,” Hand2Mouth’s Jonathan Walters says, “trusting that the cumulative effect of so much music, emotion and image is more powerful than carefully crafting one moment at a time for an audience.”

Be sincere: In person, the members of both Liminal and Hand2Mouth seem as skeptical and pessimistic as any other Portlanders. Onstage, things are different. Theory of Love embraces its subject wholeheartedly, without pausing to sneer at romantics along the way. Repeat After Me strives to present songs about American life with all of the genuine emotion that inspired their creation, and mostly succeeds. And that’s no small feat in a town where “ironic” love of Garth Brooks is the fastest way to get a seat at the cool kids’ table.

Kill your darlings: In rehearsal since November, Repeat After Me has gone through a lot of changes. Walters says the group has thrown out “the vast majority” of the material it created for the show: “We made scenes out of 200 to 300 songs, and we’ve pared that down to about 25.” Theory of Love has taken even longer to reach fruition, with the libretto selected from three years’ worth of research and hundreds of pages of text, of which perhaps 3,000 words are performed. After all, audiences deserve only the best.