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Training Daze 

In the absurdist musical The Transit Rider, public transportation becomes a metaphor for life

Wednesday, Sep 4 2002
People find it strange that I still don't know how to drive -- until I tell them I grew up in New York. In the Big Apple and some San Francisco neighborhoods, car ownership and its responsibilities can be a liability. Puni aside, we've got a transit system that takes us pretty much everywhere we want to go. At least that's what I tell myself when I'm cursing Muni and vowing to drag my sorry ass to the DMV.

One woman who can commiserate with my love-hate relationship with public transportation is vocalist and guitarist Dawn McCarthy, the driving force behind local experimental music and theater act Faun Fables, which she fronts with multi-instrumentalist Nils Frykdahl (of Sleepytime Gorilla Museum). A six-year resident of New York, McCarthy channeled her subterranean experiences into The Transit Rider, an absurdist musical about what she called in a recent interview the "collective experience of being on the train."

The allegorical piece is emblematic of what McCarthy refers to as "the transit system of life." Seeking to re-create public transpo's "strange, condensed version of civilized human existence" and its unspoken rules -- avoid eye contact, respect personal space, and remain anonymous -- The Transit Rider takes place on a seemingly endless ride. "The train is a potential force of isolation and alienation," McCarthy explains. (And here I thought it was just a means of getting from Point A to Point B.)

McCarthy assumes the role of the titular passenger, a fool-type character who futilely tries to reach her destination, only to be foiled time and again by Jerry Mandering, a schizophrenic businessman "addicted to career momentum." Along the way she meets a hodgepodge of characters, including the mysterious, all-powerful Conductor; the Follower, who tries to change her destiny by randomly pursuing others; and the Cleaning Lady, who doubles as a Spiritual Inquisitor.

Theater is a natural progression from music for McCarthy, whose yodeling skills, eerie vocalizations, and cabaret-style showmanship are only a stone's throw from performance art. Fans of the Fables may recognize some of the songs from previous gigs, but the original compositions have never been presented as a whole until now. The Transit Rider -- which combines Bay Area talents from multidisciplinary performance troupe inkBoat and sonic pranksters Rube Waddell with the video expertise of Eric Koziol -- may be existential, but it's not inaccessible. Anyone who's ridden a train or a bus understands those social expectations and boundaries -- even if he's the one breaking them.

Since she conceived the play eight years ago, McCarthy's local encounters with public transport have been much tamer. Comparing the transit systems of both cities, she describes Muni as "much cleaner and controlled, less claustrophobic" than New York's underground. Apparently, she's never ridden the N Judah during rush hour.

About The Author

Lisa Hom


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