I'll Have Popcorn, and 36 Hours on a Bus

Going to Tahoe as a matter of performance art

Twice a month, for the past two and a half years, foolhardy theatergoers and bold dilettantes have gathered at dusk on the corner of 16th and Bryant to board a bus without any foreknowledge of its destination. If they are prudent, patrons have followed the cautionary advice to wear sturdy walking shoes and bring flashlights; they understand that spirited acquiescence and jocular willingness are necessary, because, for the next four hours or more (often much more), they will be directionally disoriented and left at the mercy of a stagy band of freaks who adhere to the tenets of Popcorn Anti-Theater.

According to the mission statement, Popcorn advocates objective standards in performance art. (Translation: Just because you don't like it doesn't mean it isn't art.) Popcorn encourages group participation with theater hosts and fellow patrons. ("Be nice," suggests the information packet. "Introduce yourself. Even if this means pinning your neighbor like they were an opponent at a WWF match.") Patrons are compelled to contribute to their own theatrical experience, in character and body. ("Share your talents," the suggestions continue. "If you juggle, grab something soft and round, and toss it.") On the bus, everyone is encouraged to drink booze and deftly misbehave; off the bus they are invited to relish odd performances in peculiar locations, and partake when asked.

Popcorn Anti-Theater tours have seen white-trash renderings of Georges Bizet's Carmenstaged in the center of an auto dismantling operation; the drive-by mooning of tourists; fire-dances and site-specific percussion in abandoned water towers; and games of "Zombie" enacted at the end of fog-enshrouded piers. This month's Popcorn Anti-Theater tour promises to be unusual, even for the Popcorn-acculturated.

We gather in an alley behind the Greyhound bus station where a man who resembles an earthy version of The Simpsons' Sideshow Bob Terwilliger has surreptitiously parked the Green Tortoise Popcorn bus. Instantly, a man named Satanwith a flame-trimmed blazer, red beard, and red and yellow contact lenses, places a dead weasel on my photographer's head, and I know I'm in the right place. Supplies meant to sustain and entertain us on our 36-hour trip to South Lake Tahoe and back lean against the wheel wells of the bus: jugs of water, sleeping bags, games, hats, skis, bottles of liquor, musical instruments, stuffed animals, and Power Bars. Popcorn's Mistress Mao, a dominatrix ensconced in shiny black PVC, scuttles back and forth between piles of luggage, her cat-o'-nine-tails swinging in the morning sun.

There are 27 of us, including "cast," and, despite its early-'70s, foldaway design, the 40-person sleeper coach is crowded. The padded benches and tables, which double as bunk beds at night, are quickly occupied, and the remaining folks spread out on a padded sleeping area in the back of the bus, or climb into overhead luggage racks that double as lofts. Charlie, a New Yorker who works in computers, and his cohort Texan Davy break out a backgammon board and open the gaming table for a dollar a point.

"I invented gambling, you know," says Satan, leering as Bronco Betty the Bargain Nurse and Arlene the Waitresstry to feed the "sleepers" homemade ice-cream sandwiches. A late-arriving patron offers everyone finger sandwiches and focaccia bread while Adawna Divineoffers her fellow audience members condoms in assorted flavors and dimensions. Someone busts out a bottle of vodka. Lilly Pond Sex Therapist demonstrates the art of placing a condom on a dildo with her mouth. Popcorn's lawyer, Mr. Blinkstein -- or Blinky,to those who notice the disarming 3-D eyes staring out of his sunglasses -- accounts for our late departure, claiming the Fed-Ex bicycle messenger has not yet delivered our engine. Satan passes out contracts for us to sign, one for Green Tortoise and one for our souls.

The bus rumbles into life and Dr. Discount Thrift Therapist grabs a megaphone to officially introduce the cast and explain our predicament: "This is hit-and-run theater. Along the way, we may be breaking some subtle laws. If you see authorities looking our way, please remember to say this is an art school field trip and refer them to one of us. Repeat after me. Art school field trip!"

After a brief detour -- picking up Popcorn's philosophical founder, Hernan Cortez, his wife and inspiration, Brynne Cortez, and their two-month-old son Jackson Lucky, as well as all the equipment from the broken-down shuttle vehicle -- we're under way. As we crawl up Highway 80, Mr. Blinky plays "Wipe Out" on his face with a number two pencil. In the back of the bus, Bronco Betty leads a cozy game that involves dirty playing cards, spoons, and copious amounts of vodka. Mudslides and intoxicating fruit punch are circulated in the front of the bus. Audience member Ranini Martiangets his fingernails painted green, while Zack plays bongo drums along with the anomalous touring soundtrack supplied by onboard videographer Lil' Mike. We practice pee-code (one meaning bone-dry, 10 meaning I've already wet myself) and stop at gas stations in small towns where the employees gape and ask if we're in a circus.

Back on the bus, the booze is still flowing. Dr. Discount offers injections of Krazy Glue while Charlie colors Divine's back tattoo with felt-tip pens. Terri and Iain read the History of Abnormal Sex Practices, and Lily Pond gets folks to draw tantric-position stick figures, which are taped on the windows. Satan warns New Orleans transplant J.J.that he might not want to get drunk before six. As we pass Chowchilla, J.J. slurs "I've never missed a Mardi Gras in my life."

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