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 Carmen staged 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 Satan with 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 Waitress try to feed the “sleepers” homemade ice-cream sandwiches. A late-arriving patron offers everyone finger sandwiches and focaccia bread while Adawna Divine offers 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 Martian gets 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.”
In Sacramento, we stop at a 5,000-square-foot warehouse owned by Allen Denault, said to be the only bastion of art in the region. We are chased by hillbillies with power tools and treated to the ambient sounds of Mixtape From Mars, a man who combines our ranting with drum beats, didjeridoo, and the eerie sounds of wok lids. One of our patrons emerges from the back room, dressed as Carlotta Cox, to do a lipsynch routine of Nancy Sinatra tunes, only to be outdone by a man named Duckie who performs as Britney Spears. Dr. Discount explains his “alcohol reclamation project” and invites us to drink vomit that tastes a lot like chicken noodle soup. Two local girls treat us to office-chair racing while Iain beats on a huge industrial drum with an oversized rubber mallet. We get back on the bus and the drinking resumes, as do the games, and the misuse of Lily Pond's dildo.
In Placerville, we are invited to step off the bus into the icy night air. Half of us are blindfolded and led across a street into what sounds like a restaurant. I am told to duck my head and step down. The floor becomes wet underfoot. There are planks and puddles, but we are perceptibly inside, maybe underground. Sound becomes muffled as the walls seem to close in. I smell dank fungus and rotting wood. Something drips on my head. We pass sources of music as my body is guided through an unseen maze. I am told to sit and remove my blindfold. My location is a narrow, abandoned gold mine tunnel with seeping walls and dim lights anchored in the rock. Zack is playing clarinet at the end of the passageway. This is the back room of the Placerville Coffee House, one of Dr. Discount's childhood haunts. The original building, a soda works, was built around an existing mining tunnel in 1859. Now, a bluegrass band plays upstairs and the cheerful women behind the counter dole out gourmet tea and sandwiches. We admire, then load up and start the long winding stretch toward Tahoe. There are sing-alongs to the Violent Femmes and Styx. Over-saturated folks pass out under sleeping bags in the back of the bus as over-excited folks start a disco-dance party in the front. Dr. Discount points out the stars and the multi-thousand-foot drop to our left.
In Tahoe, Dr. Discount tells us the night, and following day, are ours. He suggests putting laundry detergent in fountains, hitting the blackjack tables with Bronco Betty, or going to karaoke with Mistress Mao. It's past midnight. Some of us opt for hotel rooms, including our driver, who has no faith that the party on the bus will ever stop. Dr. Discount helpfully explains that if the bus is not where we left it, there will be a flier adhered to a nearby pole giving direction. Essentially, we are squatting in the parking lot, and anything could happen.
The following day — after a bit of harmless trespassing, a snowball fight, and a panoramic view at 10,000 feet — I return to the bus. Chunks of ice lay shattered in the road leading up to the vehicle, evidence of an early morning icicle-sword fight. Inside, stuffed animals hang from nooses on every bunk. The words “Help Me” are written in frost on the windows. Empty bottles and sleeping bags are strewn in every nook; Lily Pond's sex books lay ruffled.
“The bus has taken on a whole new personality, don't you think?” asks Brynne Cortez, patting her child.
Hungover and gambling-broke, patrons and cast return one by one to tell their tales: Shooting guns in the woods, a mad porno-and-whirlpool party on the top floor of Caesar's, an inadvertent Super Bowl fondling session, and so on. But the winning story is that of Lil' Mike, who, having consumed a number of psychoactive drugs in the night, was still determined in the morning to use the skis he had rented for the trip. Mike went up but he didn't know how to come down. It took all day. Tree by tree. Wipe-out by wipeout.
“You know the gondola ride is great (it would be better if they had drinks on “em, I guess),” says Lil' Mike, limping back to the sleeping quarters, “but then they make you get off.
“I need a new comfort zone for my liver,” continues Mike, looking for his rubber proxy. “Where's my liver?”
Mistress Mao and the keyholder of the Caesar's suite are wed, as mistress and submissive, but the audience is sleepy. The sing-alongs descend into showtunes, and backgammon gives way to debates about three-dimensional space. During the boys' underpants contest, only Dr. Blinky and Mao's boy have the moxie to parade their shorts (Blinky's shorts are worth it). But West Sacramento holds a last hurrah: Two credulous teens follow the crew out of a fast food restaurant, hoping to get a tour of the “freak” bus. They make it three steps.
“If I die, it's your fault,” says the boy to the girl. The Popcorn crowd roars with laughter. It's the best thing yet.