The Earthquake Predictor Rides the Bus, by Hank Willenbrink, directed and performed by Mitchell Thomas. Friday, September 22. Next bus departing Cabrillo and State Dolphin Fountain at 7, 8, and 9 p.m., Friday, September 29.
Reviewed by Sara Barbour
About 15 minutes into the bus ride, our guide leaned forward conspiratorially. “She had something under her eye,” he began, “and I thought it was a bit of mascara. But no …” and here we all shifted to the edge of our seats, poking our heads out into the aisle to get a better view. He paused dramatically, scanning the semi-dark bus and said, “It was a black freckle.”
And so it went on: Hank Willenbrink’s surreal The Earthquake Predictor Rides the Bus, a half-hour monologue performed aboard an actual bus on a circuitous route around Santa Barbara. As the guide, Mitchell Thomas abruptly shifted from perceptive impersonations of obnoxiously perky tour guides to self-absorbed, trance-like lapses in which he delivered startlingly odd anecdotes that ranged from the pursuit of a woman he subsequently married and murdered to his skill as an “earthquake predictor.” Interspersed were several mildly interesting Santa Barbara facts — relating, unsurprisingly, to the Chumash and Saint Barbara — but with the exception of the man snoring faintly behind me and the little girl across the aisle, all the passengers managed a number of genuine laughs in between the initially awkward silences.
There was something oddly captivating about our guide. His piercing gaze would shift quite suddenly out the window, where he would stare riveted by something in the outer world that was hidden from us. It felt like we were separate from the milling Friday night traffic, and although I’ve passed these places a thousand times before, it seemed as though I was seeing Santa Barbara for the first time. In the silences that fell after deadpan assertions such as “I’ve always found plants irresistibly attractive,” I found my mind wandering introspectively, and when the narrator paused to ponder the forgotten people who had once walked these streets, declaring that “history has a terrible memory,” I felt a chord had been struck. Santa Barbara fosters so many creative pursuits, the majority of which are naturally forgotten, but what would become of the one I was presently part of?
When I stepped off the bus I felt as though I’d completed a real journey. Certainly there were moments when I feared catching my fellow passenger’s eye and bursting into laughter, but there were also moments when I felt an immense respect for our guide, who took it upon himself to create a new world from the generally underappreciated everyday one. In the end, the fact that the earthquake predictor couldn’t predict the sudden crumbling of his own life led him to virtual madness. But it also led us on an experience I won’t soon forget.