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Circus Circus

[whitespace] Post-apocalyptic everyman theater

By David Mills

Just as Popcorn's recent urban theater event was about to start, two homeless winos stumbled out of the high brush and surveyed what must have been a bewildering scene. About 150 Gen-X artists, enthusiasts and all-around hipsters--some in grotesque carnival costumes, others in smart street fashion--had taken over the dark little godforsaken peninsula at the bottom of 24th street. Torches lit up the night, radio distortion blared, an evil-looking clown banged like a maniac on a drum strapped to his chest.

As the winos looked on, a motley band of strolling musicians dressed as rodents (the Art Varmits) passed by. Heralding the start of this "anti-theater" event, the Art Varmits called the crowd to a single spot on the far end of the peninsula. As the show started, the winos wandered off, missing Popcorn's circus of five-minute performance pieces. Too bad: not only did the winos miss some delightfully kooky and sometimes eerie theater, they missed the open bar at the end of the show.

Popcorn creates interactive, site-specific alternative theater. Their recent show was a mixture of vaudeville and street theater, short scenes staged outdoors and linked together like a sideshow. The loose series of performances was presented as a tour of the weird and wonderful, a certain Schlepp Cussbutt acting as tour guide and ringmaster. Using a paper megaphone, Cussbutt introduced each act and directed the audience to the site of each performance. The musical Art Varmits led the way as the crowd shuffled over chaparral to different points on the peninsula for each segment of the show.

Directed by Hernan Cortez and Helena Nolan, each act was unique yet infused with the same creepy cast-off, carnival feeling. A traveling snake-oil huckster worked the crowd, hawking his miraculous restorative elixir. A one-armed sideshow barker told tall tales of the unseen reptile Bone Crusher. A bilious dummy snapped at the head of a hapless ventriloquist. A wizened invalid conjured a party-crashing hyena with a human face mask. An absurd gravedigger provoked the Easter Bunny. (The only unsure note--a hasty gothic interlude with New Age romantic overtones.)

The event was refreshing and creative in its approach--cheap, seemingly spontaneous, unencumbered by trappings of professional theater. Instead the work relied on good old-fashioned folkways--straightforward storytelling, creative costuming and a dynamite setting. (The postindustrial smokestacks looming overhead, the silent black bay, the MUNI streetcar graveyard--think: Mad Max meets the Wiz.)

However, after a little bit, it became clear that maybe some of those old traditional theater conventions--plot line, dramatic tension and intention--might be worth holding onto. Popcorn's flirtations with narrative--excellent excerpts from actual plays and original work--were amusing but ultimately frustrating and not very satisfying. Aside from a hilarious pissing match between two pompous blowhards, penned by alternative theater luminary Mac Wellman, the whole event was strangely lacking in meaning. While Popcorn excels at play, one can't help but wonder what it all means. Why the creepy crawly-ness? Why the musical rodents? Why is this happening outside? Why reject convention at all? Sure, Popcorn's enthusiastic, unconventional approach is fun, but might be just as fun inside. Cortez and Nolan's direction never attempted to answer any of these questions.

Amazing setting, great actors, compelling stories and kooky costumes: all the elements of great theater. And yet can you blame me for wanting more than a torchlit, castaway fashion show? Then again, for the price of admission ($1), maybe a torchlit, castaway fashion show ain't so bad. Popcorn throws in the fizzy beverage and the maniacal clown free of charge.

Dial the Popcorn Hotline for information about upcoming shows: 415/695-9100.

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From the April 20-May 3, 1998 issue of the Metropolitan.

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