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Got On the Bus

Zocalo Theater takes its act on the long and winding road

And yet art for art's sake, Topchy insists, is not a concept relevant to Zocalo's mission. "I don't believe in art for art's sake," he says. "I think there are certain meanings in everyday life, and the actions of everyday life. It's not only political to do something like get up in the morning, but it can also be poetic to brush your teeth in a certain way, to live a certain way. To take advantage of and to really realize that one's alive."

It only takes a few hours of the Zocalo Mobile Village's East Coast tour to let everyone aboard the bus realize they're alive, if only because the trip has already begun to stimulate the desire that one were peacefully dead instead. Everything that was once neatly packed is now scattered. The expensive reality of starving artists filling a 50-gallon gas tank for a 3,600 mile round trip in a vehicle that travels seven miles to the gallon has begun to sink in, as have the uncomfortable logistics of ten unsynchronized bladders.

Never mind that there are ten creative adults on board, ten self-styled artists with ten touchy, helium-filled egos. Never mind that Poet's Cafe henchman Malcolm MacDonald -- who once chased a small after-hours crowd around Catal HYyYk with his whizzing penis in his hand after an argument over $5 -- insists on challenging every personality characteristic of every member of the entourage, just to see if he can make them cry. Never mind that someone has to be in charge of an undertaking of this cramped magnitude, and not one soul on this bus likes to be told what to do. A sane planner would have ditched the Mobile Village concept as a wonderfully intriguing, but fatally impractical gesture, before the bus ever got rolling. But making such a gesture work is -- every bit as much as any resultant art -- the point. If getting out of bed in the morning is a political statement and the brushing of teeth contains poetry, lunacy on this scale must, everyone involved implicitly insists, be a grand gesture.

"What I'm actually doing," explains Topchy, "is I'm gearing myself to be less rooted. My ancestors, Cossacks, are nomads. But it's only the rich people that really get to be sort of nomadic in this country. They have summer homes in different places. Lower middle-class people and working class people -- like most of these artists -- can't. In Russia and in Eastern European countries, I think if you're an intellectual or a really talented musician or poet or something like that, the culture is more valued in those societies, so that's one of the ways to escape the stigmas of being lower class. Whereas in America, it's such a materialistic place that the best you can do if you're an immigrant or first-generation is to have this kind of hope, to say 'America is a great place.' I feel like that's the strength of immigrants, but it's not necessarily the reality of this country's culture. So what I'm doing, just for my sanity, is I'm finding a way to cheaply develop a sense of nomadic community. To travel and do art in a country where it's really hard to do that."

The Zocalo Mobile Village isn't Topchy's first attempt at a nomadic art community. A previous tour to New York in a steelenshrouded convertible family car last year paved the road (and experienced 33 instances of mechanical failure). Zocalo has performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, New York's Buskers Fair and the International Performance Festival in Mexico City. The bus itself got a trial run two months ago with a road test and performance in San Antonio. The present tour -- with scheduled performance stops in New Orleans, Baltimore, New York City, Boston, Provincetown and Raleigh -- is itself loosely conceived as a preview for a more extensive college tour next year.

With a painted bus full of ne'er-do-wells recalling the acid-trip ramblings of Ken Kesey's famous bus Further, and with the hodgepodge Zocalo performances tapping into the American tradition of the traveling circus, and with the artists involved maddeningly insistent on the prime virtue of suggestive ambiguity, one might be excused for wondering just what the hell actually happens at these "performances." It's a good question, but it's not one satisfyingly answered beforehand.

It is, Topchy attempts, glossing the probability that he's not sure himself, "important to not know exactly why you're doing everything you're doing. But you can find out after a while."

Okay. Since it's now been a while -- and the bus has made it as far as New York, where, after two performances at the Brooklyn Anchorage under the Brooklyn Bridge, it's up in the air having its brakes fixed -- I'll tell you what parts of America have seen on loan from Houston.

The performance fades in with Kevin Jackson's turntable feeding kitsch-laden music into loudspeakers atop the bus. Malcolm MacDonald introduces the company, tells a funny story about whatever outrageous misfortune happened to strike the group the day before and suggests, without actually begging, that the crowd might want to make a small financial contribution before the night is out.

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