Theater Review - Mental floss

Help! mocks self-improvement seminars

Out of Hand Theater’s latest show, Help!, needs no assistance at spoofing self-improvement seminars. Out of Hand’s creators/performers don’t present a play per se, but lead the audience through goofy versions of fairly authentic exercises and topics from motivational meetings. You might not need Help!, but the show’s entertaining silliness makes you feel better coming out than you did going in.

On arrival, you take a name tag and designate a problem for yourself from four choices: “Sad,” “Poor,” “Drunk” or just “Fine.” Without giving too much away, I should mention that being “Fine” isn’t necessarily an advantage. I chose “Poor” and noticed that, by some coincidence, the other theater journalists were “Poor” as well.

Despite the tiny size of Dad’s Garage’s Top Shelf, Help! captures the details of self-help presentations with hilarious accuracy, like the synthesized, New-Agey music that introduces the four “life coaches”: Ariel de Man, Adam Fristoe, Maia Knispel and Justin Welborn. (The fifth writer, Steve Yockey, doesn’t perform onstage.) Their energetic entrances include cartwheels and high fives, and they preen “I’m better than you and I’m going to help you get better,” when shaking hands with the attendees.

Throughout the evening, the coaches take the audience through the major steps in Phase 1 of the Help! program, which includes learning to love yourself, stop whining and tap an additional 4 percent of your brain power. Need assistance getting off your ass? Whenever you catch yourself sitting down, the coaches teach you to spank yourself and shout “No!” Most exercises amount to pure nonsense. One attendee tore through the plastic “Issue Tape” to escape from the “Sludge Chair.” Others learned to turn love into aggression, and back into love again by taking Styrofoam sticks and beating Welborn like a piñata.

Help! includes a couple of clever musical interludes, such as Welborn’s country ballad “I Do,” a tribute to “self-marriage.” Fristoe ripped through an acoustic rock number about evolution that proved pleasingly reminiscent of Tenacious D.

The four coaches each have slightly different personae. De Man channels the smiling perkiness of a flight attendant, Knispel the pushy intensity of the recent convert, Welborn the excessive enthusiasm of someone “high on life.” But Fristoe conveys such beatific confidence and makes such “sincere” eye contact that he could make a bona fide career out of leading seminars.

Help! makes some serious satirical points. The coaches often interrupt themselves to hawk ancillary merchandise infomercial style, illustrating the self-help industry’s predatory nature. Each coach has a monologue describing how they used to be miserable failures until the Help! program turned their lives around, but their testimonials tend to be too grim to be particularly funny. The inclusion of Kool-Aid late in the play comments on the cultish quality of self-improvement groups, but the play doesn’t explore the paradox of the self-help movement, which can improve the lives of participants while exploiting them.

This is clearly the wrong show for anyone uncomfortable with audience participation. But the Out of Hand ensemble approaches its whimsical exercises with infectious humor and sets up nothing that results in major embarrassment or requires a change in clothes. If Help! were a trust exercise, Out of Hand would catch you and not watch you crash to the floor.

Think of Help! as the equivalent of kindergarten fun and games designed for grown-ups. Out of Hand’s show leaves you thinking, “I’m OK, you’re OK and Help! is OK, too.”