Image: Hand2Mouth

I never liked gym class. I skipped every pep rally I could. In other words, I didn’t exactly enter the old gym at the Peninsula Park Community Center for Hand2Mouth’s new show, Pep Talk, with a fond sense of nostalgia.

Yet I barely took a seat on the benches at one end of the gym before Coach Julie Hammond, in her gym shorts and knee-high socks, barked: “Scott! Bund! Foosball table!” pairing my friend and I with strangers. The table was covered in teal and purple felt—the team colors of the night—and Hammond was not beyond a little “table tilting” to win. My resistance was vanquished. Like any good spirit squad, they had me roped in from the get go for their joyous descent into that pillar of American culture: the motivational pep talk.

From their loudspeaker starting-lineup introductions, Hammond and fellow H2M regulars Liz Hayden, Erin Leddy, and Maesie Speer play their particular coach-types with zany, often improvised zeal, egging us on with fanny-pack speakers, high fives, chants, unicorn-mermaid jerseys, and feel-good aphorisms. Using a gym full of lovingly lo-fi multimedia, like covering said Foosball table with a white board for nonsensical, ESPN-style sports-play diagrams or using a mic and headphones to feed lines to audience members to perform (TBA-vets might remember the move from Gob Squad), our team of coaches take us on a journey, instructing us in the steps of a good pep talk while deconstructing the form itself (e.g. “What you just witnessed was a highly successful narrative pep talk followed up by a dance routine”).

The show teeters on a balance beam between gleeful parody—the coaches love to throw out motivational schlock like Wayne Gretsky’s motto: “You miss 100-percent of the shots you don’t take”—and homage of sorts. It lifts us up while simultaneously pillorying the absurdity of our competitively positive culture. After all, thanks to pep talks and pop psychology, we’re just as obsessed with a winning mood as we are with winning itself.

Hand2Mouth: Pep Talk
Peninsula Park Community Center
Thru Feb 16
Yet a pep talk is nothing but hot air without obstacles to overcome, and the H2M team deftly introduces turns that confront us with failure
, as one and then two coaches break down, their cheerleading facades cracking under pressure, only to stand back up. And the show’s most risky moments come from the audience contributing its own shortcomings, first as Coach Speer reads the fears we wrote down before the show started, and then as one audience member is brought up to give a pep talk to someone in their lives they failed to support in a particularly powerful staging courtesy of director Jonathan Walters. (Of course, this is a particularly fraught moment dependent on the audience member’s willingness to air their failing before strangers. Gob Squad knew how to pick eager participants. Will H2M have the same success?)

That said, despite outlining the rules to a successful talk, the show hasn’t quite found its own narrative arch. It goes on too long, feeling at times more like cleverly skewered self-help modules than one coherent speech, and the ensemble’s own story of failure involving its last show, Something’s Got Ahold of My Heart, comes too late for an exhausted audience to absorb its full impact. (According to their own rules, it should be Step #2, leaving Speer’s breakdown as Step #5, the Emotional Climax, and the audience member’s pep talk as Step #6, the Call to Action).

But I don’t doubt this team’s ability to overcome such obstacles. Already, the show is tighter than the early (and, I’d argue, even final) iterations of Something’s Got Ahold of My Heart and better than many similar form-based parody shows I’ve seen (see: Powerpoint parodies). Just a bit more practice and H2M will have a winner on its hands.

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