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When theater attacks: S.F.’s Popcorn Anti-Theater troupe carts its audience around in style for an evening of site-specific performance art in the urban jungle.

by Summer Burkes

“Dilettante” column originally published at the turn of the century on 03.30.99 in the SF Bay Guardian. Re-intro March 2019 here.

 

Popcorn Anti-Theater has a refreshing approach to a medium that often gluts San Francisco: take it on the road. The troupe tosses highbrow art and snobbery out the window and piles into a bus — along with its audience — to prowl around the urban jungle on weeknights, performing anything that strikes their fancy.

For the claustrophobic (and indeed Mamet-phobic) theatergoer, this gonzo hybrid of street theater and road tripping comes as a welcome surprise.

Around 8 p.m. this past Sunday, several youngish, attitude-free urbanites mill around the Mexican Bus, waiting to board as an acoustic band called the Amazons plays peppy tunes and a curious woman hands out fortune cookies taped to shish kebab sticks.

Flyer for a different show the same season; scanned from the book “Tales of the SF Cacophony Society,” which sold out in hardcover and now the publisher Last Gasp is releasing a paperback version

A tour guide in a straight skirt and running shoes who identifies herself as Diane Longshlongski brushes past me; I see that her muted-tone scarf, her bright pink lipstick, and her faltering rhinestone-studded glasses have all been applied without a nod to symmetry. “I like wine in a box, I like big penises, and I love Casual Corner,” she confides to me, winking.

The band boards the bus first, singing three-part harmonies in the back as ticket holders jockey for seats. The troupe takes a vote to see if we mind cramming a few more eager patrons into the sold-out vehicle; we don’t, and the ayes have it.

Our official host, Louis Petitchienfou, dapper in his red tailcoat, top hat, bad French Canadian accent, and even worse monobrow, introduces himself and announces that “zees ees zhe evening of Popcorn’s first anniversaire.”

As we rumble through the dark side of Potrero Hill, hyperactive poet Atta Boy, zany in a coffee-shop way, regales us with tales of passing buckets of spit around at rock concerts. Louie warns that if the cops stop us tonight, we should be nice and do what they say. He then tells us to be sure and touch his bottom on the way out at the first anti-theater site.

The bus is indeed pulled over by the “San Francisco Hipster Police” on a desolate part of Third Street; one of the cops relishes screaming, “What we have here, people, is a failure to accessorize!”

After the crowd is called out (each touching Louie’s bottom) for favoring baseball caps over chipped black nail polish, we all file through a hole in a chain link fence, walk along the canal leading out to sea, and discover a rumpled, dejected office nerd lying in the grass in a suit covered with paint, schizophrenically singing along to Marilyn Monroe’s “I Wanna Be Loved by You.” Annnnnd we’re off.

During the three-hour journey (it doesn’t seem that long), the actual performance pieces — mostly hits with a few misses — occur both on and off the bus. We’re plied with poetry, live music, and a scary, verbose monologue. Louie announces that he shaved in between his brow “for the sake of public decency,” and a newscaster called Haywood Yablowme makes SNL News look like a community college comedy class.

A few more monologues, a skit about a superhero named Excellent Man and the rewards of not masturbating, and a lecture on how to tell if you’re an alcoholic (“You might be an alcoholic if you’ve ever had a sunburn on the inside of your mouth”).

Popcorn Anti-Theater cast, 1999, aboard El Volado the Mexican Bus

Advantages of Popcorn Anti-Theater over real theater: It’s a different show every time. Even if one of the dozen or so skits sucks, you know that at least it’ll be over soon, and instead of squirming uncomfortably in a dark room, you can wander off to stare at the water or go play in a deserted alley. Some of the sketchy terrain, only advisable for visits in large groups like this one, is quite beautiful at night.The scene changes are literal, and natural settings are used to maximum advantage. And the troupe usually stops at or near a liquor store somewhere along the way. Disadvantages: only one. There’s nowhere to pee. But we’re creative.

For the finale, we visit the Ferry Building, where, Diane Longshlongski tells us, the first theater district was located during the Barbary Coast years. A perplexed news crew, having chosen the placid Bay Bridge as the ideal site to drop some bad news about Kosovo, asks Louie and crew if we could be quiet.

Not likely, since the SanFranPsycho Sideshow is next: a horrific character named Scabby the Clown swallows swords, David Apocalypse breathes fire and shoves an ice pick up his nose, and Molotov Malcontent walks on knives and broken glass.

On the way back to the bus the crowd stumbles on a couple of homeless hecklers, and as “There’s No Business like Show Business” starts up on the sound system, the pair fling back their ratty blankets to reveal top hats and tails. It’s Mr. and Mrs. Broadway, and I haven’t seen a dance routine like that since Cabaret.

We file back onto the bus for the last time, a little bit drunker and friendlier, and head down the eerily abandoned Market Street at midnight.

After Louie introduces and thanks all the evening’s players, the Amazons launch into a cover of the Modern Lovers’ “Roadrunner,” which seems appropriate: “It’s so exciting here with the skyscrapers in the dark / I feel in touch with the modern world / I feel in love with the modern world.”

That is, until Atta Boy screams out a few more poems. For some people, it seems, the show never stops.

 

This is the 40th piece in my “twenty years ago this week” project; this post’s intro is here, and Dilettante’s first installment is here.

Oh and ten years after this article, on 03.25.09, the SFBG‘s next nightlife columnist Marke B gets ready for spring with some fluffy bunners.

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