Of course David is telling untruths when he promises at the start of Repeat After Me that we will know how we feel to be American in 89 minutes. The show is just too full of contradictions and complexities to leave the audience with a unified feeling or thought. Hand2Mouth have, over the years, formed a way of working which incorporates the input and improvisation of cast members on a specific topic. They have a sense of humor which is very much their own – the goofy, trite and kitsch hide an undertone of deadly serious political anger. Hand2Mouth have not been afraid to take on big topics of slavery, westward expansion, patriotism. The results are often big, messy and somewhat uneven. Depending on your perspective, this uneven quality can be either charming or frustrating. Perhaps it represents what Taylor Mac has called the “Hey kids, let’s put on a show aesthetic”. Repeat After Me is a great example, as it swings wildly between divergent moments. From what seems to be a group of 12 year-olds putting on a variety show in the basement rec room can emerge a deeply affecting and provocative scene.
Repeat After Me succeeds in giving the impression of aliens visiting America and trying to fit in based on clues gleaned from popular culture. The costumes look as if the cast jumped into the Goodwill bins and came up wearing whatever they found. The musical choices are similarly unselective – a broad cross section of Americana both obvious and obscure, like a cross section of everything on the radio at one moment in time. The performance itself feels like a mash-up of high-school talent show, church revival, aerobics class, karaoke bar, strip club, support group and music video, just to mention a few. These “genres” become mixed, fused and confused. But, gol durn it, the participants are nothing if not eager and enthusiastic. Big cheesy smiles and a “go get ‘em Tiger” attitude prevail as the characters encourage each other, hold each other up and restrain each other. Someone always seems to take things just a little (or a lot) too far, and by golly, the others are there to help him or her conform. But this pattern of freak-out and restraint becomes a bit formulaic as it repeats again and again during the production.
My opinion is altered somewhat by having seen the first version of Repeat After Me in the Goldsmith Performance Lab a year ago. The TBA version feels tame by comparison, though I’m having difficulty identifying why. Those dark moments feel less dark, the destruction of the stage feels less complete, the chaos feels more controlled. Even small choices such as the replacement of red Gatorade with water (vomited repeatedly by Erin) feel less strong. The bright red liquid and iconic brand reference add layers of meaning to an otherwise ridiculous moment. Other scenes are still brilliant, such as the “American Tableau” around a glowing campfire, in which characters sing through mouthfuls of marshmallow.
On the other hand, I think the meta-narrative of this version is stronger, the feeling of group identity and the sense that these people desperately want to fit in to a so-called American culture – in all of its absurdity, glitz, contradiction, humor, rage, ridiculousness, incoherence and beauty. Those mixed feelings continue long after the end of the show.
- posted by Seth Nehil