Bob, born to be great. Got that?

Vertigo's latest comedy rambles on, a little bafflingly but entertainingly, about life or something like it

In the Peter Sinn Nachtrieb play Bob: a Life in Five Acts, the title character gets his name in an almost random fashion. Abandoned by his mother in the bathroom of a White Castle burger joint, he babbles happily at the employee who finds him, and among the fledgling syllables that emerge is a sound something like “Bob.”

That turns out to be a very apt name for the fellow, though. His subsequent lifelong journey takes place on land — all around the highways, rest stops and towns of these United States — but the way he alternately drifts along aimlessly and pops up suddenly, both across the map and through the narrative of this odd Everyman fable, he might as well be at sea, bobbing on the waves and currents of fate.

Nathan Crosby, taking life for granite. Photo: Mario Calcagno

Nathan Crosby, taking life for granite. Photo: Mario Calcagno

Somehow, director Matthew B. Zrebski’s production for Theatre Vertigo manages to impart the sense of a spacious ramble in the city’s least expansive performance space, Southeast Portland’s Shoebox Theatre. And it makes something highly enjoyable – if not necessarily cohesive – out of Nachtrieb’s antic, allusive tale of one man’s grand ambition to be great.

Vertigo has followed Nachtrieb’s winding path before, with boom in 2010 and Hunter Gatherers in 2012. Both those shows traded on the playwright’s dual background in biology and theater (Nachtrieb majored in both subjects at Brown University) and perhaps as a result felt more grounded; however playful their language and their thematic conceits, they weren’t as loosey-goosey with narrative direction as poor Bob is.

Following Bob’s less-than-noble birth (which, in this staging, requires actor Nathan Crosby to pop out of a simulated womb and roll around the floor naked for a while), his adoptive mom Jeanine quits her job and, for no clear reason, skips town, raising baby Bob in her Chevy Malibu and homeschooling him through continual cross-country sightseeing. “Oh, Bob, you soak up everything like a roll of Bounty,” she says, praising his precosity.

When Jeanine dies suddenly – ostensibly the aftereffects of gluten intolerance and her pre-Bob attempt to work her way through the entire menu at Bamboo Wok – orphaning the pre-teen Bob on the steps of the Art Institute of Chicago, we know things aren’t going to proceed in a logical, naturalistic fashion. Especially once Bob cremates her on the spot, using a pyre of trigs, crumpled newspaper and a Duraflame log.

From there, Bob falls repeatedly and inexplicably into the trunk of a car driven by Jeanine’s whiskey-soured pal Bonnie, who is on her own confused quest for identity. When he’s not being whisked willy-nilly from place to place, he’s encountering all manner of folk: bear (the kind that loves men, not the kind that loves picnic baskets), a vacuous hippie spiritualist, a rebellious daughter of corporate privilege, a bizarre bunch of diner-waitress succubi seducing him with flagrant come-hither looks and ham-and-cheese omelets, and, most significantly, a couple of down-on-their-luck/high-on-their-dreams animal trainers.

All the while, Bob is harboring his own dream: to do something great enough with his life to earn the honor of his name on a plaque. Or maybe, greater still, to be immortalized in rock, like the presidents on Mt. Rushmore.

If Bob – or the audience – learns lessons about luck or pluck, perseverance or purpose, they’re not particularly clear. And the show’s rhythm, already idiosyncratic, is thrown off several times by awkward “dance” interludes about the show’s underlying themes such as hardship, love and luck. They split the difference between pretension and campiness slyly enough; they’re just a bit too dull and superfluous.

All the same, there’s plenty of fun to be had in Nachtrieb’s freewheeling way with plot developments (wolves and fleas factor in here, in ridiculous but entertaining fashion), his absurdist eye for Americana (a cop, Jeanine’s former White Castle customer and rejected suitor, calls her “my sweet slider highness”), and ear for the epigrammatic (“Some great things aren’t meant to last forever – like fruit,” Bob’s first lover tells him).

Crosby brings a wide-eyed, sweet-natured innocence and endearing, aw-shucks physicality to Bob, and there’s fine comic work throughout from the supporting ensemble of Tom Mounsey, Nathan Dunkin, Darcy Lynne, and especially Holly Wigmore, who matches Crosby’s goofball passion in several roles.


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Bob: a Life in Five Acts continues through November 15 at the Shoebox. Ticket and schedule information are here.

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