The inner quest for Utopia

Hand2Mouth's "Psychic Utopia," about Oregon utopian movements, brings the search for a "beautiful and bold life" to the audience

A Hand2Mouth ensemble member is kneeling onstage a few feet away from me and makes eye contact. “What have you done to live a more beautiful and bold life?” she asks. I knew this question was coming but I still feel a sense of panic when the fourth wall breaks down. I tell her, and the audience around me, “I allowed myself to be vulnerable.” I don’t elaborate on what that means. She smiles beatifically, repeats my answer, and turns to someone else and asks the same question. This question is at the heart of Hand2Mouth’s new devised show Psychic Utopia.

At first, it’s a little hard to tell what kind of show Psychic Utopia, which is created by the company with collaborating writer Andrea Stolowitz, is going to be. You’re offered warm hand towels on entry and invited to take your shoes off. During the preshow the actors mingle with audience members. I imagine it’s like going to a spiritual retreat.

In search of Utopia, in search of self. Photo: Chelsea Petrakis

The beginning of the performance is signaled by the ensemble gathering around a glowing cube and exhaling one long harmonic note together. The actual significance of the preshow and this ritual isn’t as important as what they are doing: Setting the tone for the show. Inviting the audience to engage actively with what they are about to experience.

Hand2Mouth’s aesthetic, which straddles theater and performance, is perfectly balanced by director Jonathan Walters for Psychic Utopia. There’s a lot of direct interaction with the audience at first, but as the show progresses, characters appear. The narrative follows these unnamed characters, amalgams of real-life people interviewed by Hand2Mouth, who have left behind their lives to move to a commune in Eastern Oregon, referred to only as “The Center.” Although they come from a wide range of backgrounds, one trait unites them: a deep feeling that something is missing from their lives and a desire to find whatever that is.

The actors bring a restrained tenderness to their performances, not overly sentimental, but aware of these characters’ fragile natures. Instead of spiritual crackpots, they come across as deeply flawed but relatable people. The production sketches these characters efficiently, adding enough depth for them to be recognizable without one taking focus over the others.

The lack of concrete details about who these people are is intentional. Psychic Utopia is not about a specific person, or a specific commune, but rather the human search for utopia. Not just a physical place, but a mental state we’re all seeking. The characters and the setting are a framework to explore this journey.

I think there’s something fascinating about the idea of commune life to Portlanders. We’re a city that leans heavily toward woo (yoga, crystals, tarot, astrology) as well as living closer to nature. Oregon’s history with commune life, perhaps made most famous by the story of the Rajneesh, adds a lurid attraction to these kinds of stories. But this production is about ideas and not about the advantages or pitfalls of commune life.

Erin Leddy, in psychic jumpsuit. Photo: Chelsea Petrakis

When the characters arrive at The Center the actors don identical jumpsuits. The stage is filled with benches covered with houseplants. They become united, identical, ecstatic. Dialogue begins to overlap. The actors move with a frenetic sense of purpose.

Seth Nehil’s sound design works well through the entire show, but especially here, becoming another part of the ensemble. Looping and echoes reverberate through the space, amplifying the actors, making the space feel full and the sense of divinity the characters feel palpable.

But as the sound increases, a sense of unease sets in. Ecstasy is not a state we can exist in forever. In fact, it’s a state that we can lose ourselves in. The center cannot hold, and we face the threat of the annihilation of the self. If the self disappears it’s easy for others to manipulate us. After an explosion of noise and shimmering visuals, a silence settles into the space. Movement work features heavily in this show, but the way the actors capture the breakdown of The Center, cautiously circling a curtain that divides the stage, is especially evocative.

For those worried about how much audience participation is involved in Psychic Utopia: it varies. The performers generally have a good read of the audience, and tended at the performance I saw to avoid those who physically recoiled whenever their gaze fell upon them; and if you politely refuse, they’ll move on to another person.

But the participation at the end of the show, which the production has been guiding you toward all along, manages to pay out some of the best moments. Watching other audience members try to explain what makes a “beautiful and bold” life is affecting without being heavy-handed. There are no gurus to teach us. Just the person sitting next to you. Hand2Mouth manages to show us that we’re all searching for our own utopias, and in that way we are connected.


Psychic Utopia continues through Dec. 2 at New Expressive Works. Ticket and schedule information here.




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