Review: `The Group’

Continues through June 14 at the Climate Theater, San Francisco

Group leader Ryan Eggensperger goes deep into the brain’s quadrants in the environmental theater experience The Group at San Francisco’s Climate Theater. Photos courtesy of Dodeska Performance Ensemble.

 

Self-help yourself to a slice of this intriguing `Group’
««« Head trip hootenanny

Enormous credit must go to the Dodeska Performance Ensemble and writer/director/sound designer Robert Quillen Camp for constructing a unique theatrical experience.

The Group is an hour-long spoof of self-help silliness – not so much of the people who want to improve themselves but the “leaders” and “innovators” who sell them a pile of steaming clichés and New Age nonsense. And it’s presented at the intimate Climate Theater in San Francisco’s South of Market district as an actual group session.

On Thursday night, my group consisted of 11 people. We are ushered into the theater space, and before we take a seat in the circle of chairs, we’re given a free cup of coffee and asked to identify our predominant sickness and slap it on a nametag that reads: “Hello, My Sickness Is…” I couldn’t resist choosing “lonliness” (sic). Others in the group were suffering from laziness, anger control, addictions, cancer, depression, infidelity and allergies. Curiously, no one chose the AIDS/HIV option.

Once in our circular formation, we were asked to fill out a questionnaire with questions such as: “My parents are (circle one): UNAPPRECIATIVE; DEAD” or “What’s your favorite film from the 1980s? (circle one): FLETCH; TOP GUN” followed by “Who is your favorite character in Top Gun (circle one): CHIPPER; SUNDOWN; MERLIN.” You get the idea. By the end of the form, when asked to draw a picture of your soul, you’re in the right mindset to meet the group leader.

But first we put on the headphones that will immerse us in the audio landscape of artificial self-help.

Ryan Eggensperger is the charismatic leader who graciously spreads his direct, intense eye contact to each member of the “power circle” as he talks us through our speedy soul reclamation project. Outfitted with a head microphone that rings loud and clear in our headphones, Eggensperger spouts inanities like a pro. “The opposite of suicide is a party,” he tells us. He also introduces us to our “spirit animal,” a sort of guide that will pop up in the earphones from time to time. That animal is a giraffe, and he sings little tunes (by Alec Duffy and Quillen Camp) that wouldn’t be out of place on a TV show for toddlers.

Eggensperger guides us through pseudo-meditations that take us to various quadrants of our brains. He sends us a fax to our selves, takes us to a costume party in a firehouse, introduces us to our Hindu otman (soul) and shares platitudes along the lines of “love is the super glue” and “money is self-confidence.” It’s all quite fun, and Eggensperger’s tightly focused energy combined with Quillen Camp’s laser-sharp soundscape create a mind-altering experience – even if the alteration means you’re lulled into sleepiness by the dim lights and lovely sounds.

With your audience literally in your thrall, it behooves Quillen Camp’s text to be that much wilder and/or sharper. The piece, as enjoyable as it is, doesn’t build to a comic punch line or a dramatic dénouement. The satire lacks that final slap or tickle that might make the evening complete. When it’s over, and Eggensperger has done a tribal dance, been possessed by our demons and changed clothes for his post-group social engagement, it’s simply over. We enjoyed it, but it didn’t make us think differently (or more jadedly) about self-help groups.

The technology of The Group – which recalls the audio installation theater projects of the Antenna Theater – is fantastic and could be utilized to an even greater degree. We willingly join this Group for whatever journey it decides to take us on. We’re not, as the leader describes, “disaloids,” diseased people who refuse to join the group. We want The Group to blow our minds – even if it blows them into hysterical fits or the discomfort of truly pointed satire.

The Group continues through June 14 at the Climate Theater, 285 Ninth St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15. Call 415-706-9535 or visit www.climatetheater.com or www.dodeska.com.