It’s 6:35 p.m. and a BART train is slowly pulling out of MacArthur station, filled with the typical rush-hour crowd: office cubicle types pecking at their laptops; teenagers plugged into iPods or cell phones; someone engrossed in a John Irving novel. Then, the car doors slide open and a young woman hastens up the aisle. She has pink hoop earrings, a shock of pink hair, and a tight scowl — caused, apparently, by the young man chasing after her. “You slept with my sister — that’s what’s wrong!” she shouts. As the other passengers set their books aside and furtively dial up BART police on their cell phones, the guy bursts, inexplicably, into an impromptu spoken-word poem about how the world is a horrible place — “a place where you get gotten.” She retorts with a poem about love and forgiveness. Their scripted pas de deux lasts until the Rockridge station, at which point the two take a bow and shuffle into the next car.
The piece, called “Stop Being Afraid and Love,” is part of a guerrilla theater experiment launched by La Peña Hybrid Experimental and Performance Ensemble. Led by La Peña theater artist-in-residence Marc David Pinate, the group mounted several performances along the Pittsburg-Bay Point line this past spring. Most start as realistic scenarios: a new-agey woman pesters a young man while he tries to read The Alchemist; a man asks an immigrant woman for the time and she pretends not to understand (inspiring him to rap a verse about communication); a woman is jilted by her boyfriend. One is a straight spectacle from the beginning, said Pinate: It stars Death — a character in a long black dress and skeleton mask — and “the Fool” — dressed in overalls, a red clown nose, and curly red wig — who speak to each other in rhyming verse, exclusively.
In order to develop the idea, Pinate rode the Pittsburg-Bay Point line several times for research purposes and to assiduously time the duration between stops. Between February and May the group performed five times, meeting at MacArthur station at 6:30 p.m., splitting off in three pairs, and taking over separate cars. For the last round, they brought lapel mics and had two cameras rolling. “It looks a little weird,” said Pinate, admitting that the group often got mixed reactions. “Once people realize it’s theater, some people get up and leave; some people will read and not look up from their books; some people call the train conductor. Since it lasts only one stop we’ll get off by the time BART police get mobilized.” He continued: “People wonder what kind of conspiratorial thing we’re doing. It turns out to be theater.”
La Peña Hybrid Experimental Performance Ensemble will screen four videotaped BART train skits, with live theater and music interspersed. Called Paradox, the show runs Tuesday, June 17, through Thursday, June 19, at La Peña Cultural Center (3105 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley). 8 p.m., $5-$7. The first night is pay-what-you-can. LaPena.org