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Got On the Bus

Zocalo Theater takes its act on the long and winding road

"What you're about to see," he claims before one performance, "is so incoherent as to defy any sort of description." Jim Pirtle, performing under the hobo-ish pseudonym Stu Mulligan, is introduced and, to the backdrop of Jackson's music, begins to sing karaoke. Charlie Rich's "Behind Closed Doors" (remember that mask theme?) is the first tune. The bus itself, capped with a 30-foot aluminum tripod and draped with a long white projection canvas, defines the stage area, and while Pirtle growls out his song, Topchy -- dressed in pajamas and whiteface -- mimes and poses from a perch atop the guardrailed plywood performance platform that serves as the bus roof. Meanwhile Roger Schoenbaum, in a matching getup, walks a tightrope stretched from a light pole to the bus. Video collages are projected on a canvas behind Pirtle, who launches into "If You Go Away" as Topchy begins to climb a knotted rope dangling from the peak of the tripod. When he reaches the top, his mugging, contorted face is recorded by a video camera mounted above him, and that image is fed onto the screen behind Pirtle, who is by now writhing on the ground beneath Schoenbaum, who's strutting over him on stilts. People clap when this is over.

Pirtle follows with "You Don't Bring Me Flowers," during which he eats a bouquet of carnations, or roses, depending upon local availability. "The Way We Were" is next, and then "It Was a Very Good Year," during which Pirtle covers his face in mayonnaise. Somewhere in there Pirtle drinks a small bottle of picante sauce and Schoenbaum smashes a watermelon off a pedestal. Pirtle closes with "Close to You" while Topchy and Schoenbaum eat the fruit off the ground.

That's the meat of the show, and while it's difficult -- if not pointless -- to say whether it's art or merely act, it is an undeniably strange, alternate reality that is created for the brief span of 45 minutes. Afterward, Ponty Lutz plays some sensitive singer-songwriter musings on his acoustic guitar, and whatever members of the crowd haven't left climb on the bus to sit at candlelit booths and drink coffee as Jackson plays more acoustic guitar music and MacDonald recites poems. According to the Zocalo Mobile Village mission statement, the performance is supposed to incite "interactive collaboration with artists from the host community," but that lofty sounding goal is rarely represented by anything more than the hippie-dip from Baltimore who followed MacDonald's performance one night with the recitation of a bit of doggerel verse inspired by the news of the passing of Jerry Garcia.

But to summarize the Zocalo performance with a blow-by-blow account doesn't do justice to the not-so-simple fact of the bus itself -- a fact that ties the fractured performance together, sort of. "I see the bus as kind of monumental," Topchy says. "It's kind of like a sculpture on wheels. I tend not to separate industrial objects from art objects, so the bus has all these weird connotations like school, church, Partridge Family, utilitarianism, all these concepts. So no matter what you do with it, it's going to be a loaded plate. It's got a lot of intrinsic meaning."

Neither does a chronological account convey the ways in which the show evolves from gig to gig in response to the contingencies of the road. In New Orleans, for example, a faulty power connection and someone's failure to buy coffee canceled the Poet's Cafe. In Baltimore, Austin-based performance artist Chad Salvata joined the tour with a show-opening voice-manipulation chant-fest, only to bail out of the tour in New York after an ugly slap-fight in Baltimore and a near smashup on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway convinced him that he had better things to do than risk death for art that, so far, has been variously described by a New York City art director as "absolute horseshit" and by a Baltimore art school event coordinator as "great, really great."

Salvata, in fact, was only the first of several troopers to truncate the trip, and not without justification. If adventure has been the much trumpeted name of the game, risk and luck have existed in a frighteningly tenuous truce. No one thought much about pitching tents in the parking lot of the Maryland Institute of Art the night after the Baltimore performance, but when Pirtle woke the following morning to find the rear end of a moving station wagon backing over his torso, its wheels straddling his sleeping place, he spoke -- when he could -- for everyone when he asked, "How many times can you roll a seven?"

But any company of performers that heads out half-cocked on the great American highway seeking art and adventure would be poorly advised if it didn't expect a generous helping of both. And whatever the ultimate impact of the individual performances along the way, the root fact of the matter is the experience itself. Whether or not an audience finds that experience rewarding to watch is, of course, that audience's business.

"For me," Topchy says, "it's about living everyday life in an exciting way. And to me, the most exciting way is to take real stock of not only day-to-day activities, but the adventure and the freshness in going different places."

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