Night Bus opens with a sketch about a 17th-century woman on trial for witchcraft. Panicked townsfolk accuse her of casting a spell that blocks them from peeing. "I could not produce the slightest tinkle! Nary a drop!" testifies one, with dramatic conviction ripped from the pages of a similar witch trial in The Crucible.
An hourlong collection of off-the-wall comedic bits, Night Bus is an ode to Portland weird. Its septet of multitalented actors and writers—Alan Burrell, Anna Nicholas, Brooke Totman, Darius Pierce, Genevieve Sage, Michael Zimmer and Ted Rooney—represents a wide range of comedic backgrounds. Totman, the show's director, is a Roseburg native and comedy veteran of the Groundlings and MADtv. Zimmer, who helped write some of the sketches, is relatively new to performance but provides some of the quieter, more surreal elements. Totman and Zimmer serve important roles in the alchemy of Night Bus. Totman's physicality is a welcome counterbalance to Zimmer's subtler conceptual contributions.
The recurring storyline in Night Bus is a sketch about a sad sap in a turtle-emblazoned skullcap, played by Pierce, who carries a Ziploc bag containing 2,999 puzzle pieces. He is questing for the missing 3,000th piece so he can finally discover what the image is supposed to be. Every time he gets a new lead on where the missing piece might be, the room gets dark, he turns to the audience and begins marching slowly, step by step, as a map illuminates behind him. Indiana Jones-style, we follow his journeys to far-flung destinations—Portland, Wilsonville, Gresham, then suddenly, Caracas, Venezuela.
Not every sketch in Night Bus works comedically. One bit in particular that falls short is a mockumentary about "hobby horsing," the practice of galloping around on a wooden pole with a plush horse head, as if riding an actual horse. The "crazy hobby" comedy trope— following someone who is obsessive with a camera—is well-worn.
One highlight, however, is a video interlude about a fictional '80s family sitcom called Guess Who's Home—a Full House-style show replete with corny dialogue, bad lighting and worse acting. It sounds unwatchable, but Guess Who's Home's saving grace is that it was filmed in front of a live audience of Tim Curry and Vincent Price, which beats a regular laugh track any day, and will make you want to revisit the entire '80s family-sitcom genre with a new perspective.
Night Bus is a fast-paced hour of smart, imaginative comedy featuring performers willing to go all in on their jokes. The actors work hard, mostly successfully, to wring every drop of laughter out of the sketch's setups. There's a touch of darkness in the show, which is best exemplified by the musical finale that takes place during an orientation in hell. Still, the script seems written to omit meanness (except for a well-deserved jab at deceased Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia). There's also a distinct lack of topicality in the humor, which is refreshing. Night Bus seems to exist in its own wacky little world, and as an audience member you're invited to spend an hour in it.
SEE IT: Night Bus is at Shoebox Theater, 2110 SE 10th Ave., theatrevertigo.org. 7:30 pm Thursday-Saturday, through July 7. $15.