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Originally published November 2, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified November 2, 2007 at 5:46 PM

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Hand2Mouth's fearless jab at flag-waving patriotism

It was only a matter of time before Portland nurtured a hip, young experimental theater troupe it could send up the highway. Now they have one:...

Seattle Times theater critic


Repeat performances

"Repeat After Me," 8 p.m. today through Sunday, Hand2Mouth Theatre at On the Boards, 100 Roy St., Seattle; $12-$18 (206-217-9888 or www.ontheboards.org).

It was only a matter of time before Portland nurtured a hip, young experimental theater troupe it could send up the highway.

Now they have one: Hand2Mouth Theater, now having its Seattle premiere at On the Boards with "Repeat After Me," a wildly exuberant piece that's like a head-slamming visit to a warped karaoke bar.

As social satire, this show can be simplistic and repetitive. But the bold, fired-up performers commit themselves to the enterprise a thousand percent, and they are worth keeping a close eye on.

With a deejay, a rack of costumes and slabs of blueberry pie, Hand2Mouth director Jonathan Walters and his six-member wrecking crew give us a demented hit parade of patriotic American pop songs — and a smattering of tunes that debunk knee-jerk flag-waving.

Speaking of flags: Old Glory waves all over the 90-minute show, in star-spangled banners large and small, and on underwear and T-shirts the cast continually pulls on and strips off.

Frantic onstage costume changes, silly tableaus and karaoke crooning are favored tactics in avant-theatrics these days. You can see them also in "I Feel Fine," a new Annex Theatre piece on the same wavelength as "Repeat After Me."

But of the two works, the Hand2Mouth effort employs more aerobic, ensemble choreography and a blunter social critique.

Staring out balefully, tearfully or seductively, wearing ludicrous wigs and mismatched outfits or not much at all, the engaging, attractive performers sing a lot of chauvinistic, post-Sept. 11 anthems, including Chely Wright's "Bumper of My SUV" and Toby Keith's "American Soldier."

They croon in sweet harmony, or deliberately off-key. And they sneak in, for contrast, a few scathing pop war protests from another era, such as John Prine's haunting "Sam Stone" and Billy Joel's "Goodnight Saigon."

But just as much the point here is the frenzied communal interrupting, jostling, groping, dancing, necking and physical combat in counterpoint to the musical set pieces, and solo displays of ego and sincerity.

Angry, unruly life intrudes on packaged emoting, as in the work of the terrific British troupe Forced Entertainment (one of Hand2Mouth's main influences).

"Repeat After Me," based on group improvisations, isn't yet as sharply edited or varied as one would hope. And the irony can be pretty cheap. Urban artists have been mocking the jingoistic excesses of small-town American flag-waving since the Vietnam War. What's called for now, perhaps, is a more layered exploration of the soil and bedrock such pugnacious patriotism springs from.

Walter and company have a ways to go to match their material to their ambitions. But they have the kind of promise, fearlessness and energy that the American theater needs, and should encourage.

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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