Big-box theater: Hand2Mouth plays the mall
Putting on a play seems like a good use for the multiple empty stores of Lloyd Center mall. The last owner, Cypress Equities of Houston, Texas, intended it to become an entertainment hub with a House of Blues and a new movie theater. That might have to wait while the current owners try to lure retailers back. In the meantime, there's a new magic store, and now Hand2Mouth Theater has taken over the space next door to put on a play.
Director Jonathan Walters said the play "We Live Here" (through May 29) is not quite immersive theater. A better example of immersive theater is "Sleep No More," a New York City play that lets the audience wander through 90 different rooms. But "We Live Here" is interactive in that it relies, to a modest extent, on suggestions from the audience.
Walters told Pamplin Media Group a couple of days before the first show, "We're using the term interactive, but it's not interactive in the sense of 'Come up and perform'. We ask the audience questions and they respond."
The audience is seated in 22 chairs in a V formation in Unit 1021, the old Ann Taylor space at the most dead wing of the mall. The lighting rigs are visible, the shop counter is where the techs run the sound and lighting, and the changing rooms are the backstage.
The shows uses a metaphor of taking a flight. The audience is greeted, as by a flight attendant, asked to write on a card a place where they feel at peace, then offered a snack and asked to sit down.
After the actors are introduced, as though by a pilot, they play kids games with the audience to soften the theatrical fourth wall: keeping beach balls in the air, and a call and response song.
Then the action veers into a string of disconnected mini sketches. In one, a character called Handsy, who has giant cardboard hands, is scolded or dismissed by others, like a child. After curling up in a ball he revives and prances around as though liberated, maybe even flying. Then the same people who dissed him praise his grace and style and want to follow him everywhere.
In the most amusing scene, characters are born and their parents give them their baggage, which is wheelie bags, duffels and fanny packs marked with things like DEPRESSION, ARTHRITIS, ANXIETY and DEPENDENCY ON PAIN MEDS. We watch them struggle and pay it forward.
In another scene, a gender nonconforming actor in a wheelchair complains realistically about the Texas ruling allowing child abuse investigations of parents providing gender-affirming care to their transgender children. They say it has put them and their two trans kids off from entering Texas to see relatives.
There were discussions of abortion and abortion rights, as well as a scene where the audience could lie down on cushions, stare at Ann Taylor's fake tin-tile ceiling, and listen to lyrical descriptions of those places where people feel at peace. Audience members also are asked to pair up at random and create a secret handshake, and later, write a wish to a parent or child.
Walters said the 4,000-square-foot space is in good condition, and works well, apart from two big pillars. "The means of production are not hidden," he said.
"It feels like it's still in this strange community hall center, which is a theme of the piece like, 'How are we in community together?'"
The goal is supposed to be an examination of how we come together as strangers, and what makes community. Perhaps nothing the actors did could match the eeriness of being in a mostly empty mall, which after 7 p.m. feels more like a cemetery than a place to check out living Portlanders. After the show ended, there was one security guard on duty on a bridge, ignoring people and talking on his AirPods, and it took trying three exits to find an unlocked door to the empty parking lot. If you want to see how COVID-19 alienation spills out into PORTLAND-22, "We Live Here" at Lloyd Center is the show for you.
Hand2Mouth won a prestigious grant from the National Endowment for the Arts so they were committed to putting it on. When COVID lifted, they had to look for a community space. After considering Pioneer Courthouse Square and the Central Library they hit upon Lloyd Center, which is at record low occupancy.
"When I stumbled on the mall, it was really interesting, because it's slightly apocalyptic and our show is addressing a fractured moment in America, like, how we actually get along together," Walters said.
He looked at classic American plays such as "Our Town."
"We took this idea of the mileposts of life. It's less of a story and more of a series of events. So there's a whole subsection on being born and then all the baggage that comes with you. Then it talks about how we'll all experience violence, and that people experience it differently. It talks a bit about the protests in the last 18 months."
Walters said the cast is very diverse, but if the audience that shows up is not, so be it.
If there was an image for the show, it would be a diverse cast of characters in a subway car together: A boxer, a Wall Street guy, a strong middle-age woman.
"We're all together, but people experience the same day in the same city very differently. And we should understand each other a little bit better," Walters said.
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