It was 3:00 a.m. and Mark and I were sitting in a meadow, listening to a psychedelic bluegrass band, surrounded by a crowd of yowling hippies who were high on mushrooms and thoroughly enjoying themselves.

"You know what's great about the performances here?" Mark said. "They're small."

By "here" he meant the Oregon Country Fair, and by "small" I think he meant both intimate and stoned. To my surprise, I found myself agreeing with him--damn the dust and sweat and one-rhythm drum circles, these people know how to put on a show.

An arts event founded in 1969, the Oregon Country Fair is Burning Man's more venerable grandfather. Every year, in a dusty, thinly treed forest outside Eugene, more than 40,000 musicians, jugglers, acrobats, contortionists, clowns, burners, and topless women with painted breasts show up for a weekend of live performance and shopping for toaster ovens made out of organic hemp.

Of course, the place was swimming in psychedelics, dreadlocked honkies, and Kucinich fans (never was the old joke about "the roar of the greasepaint, the smell of the crowd" more appropriate), but the theater was some of the funniest and most dynamic I've seen all year.

This was performance at its most primitive and, in many ways, its best. Stripped of sophisticated comforts (electricity, chairs, toilets) the performers were reduced to creating compelling, self-contained theater with nothing more than talent and true grit.

The enforced simplicity demanded bare-knuckled stagecraft, and there were super comedians and jaw-dropping acrobats hidden throughout the dung heap of jam bands. Vashon Island's UMO Ensemble did a brilliant bit of red-nosed clowning using a loaf of bread as a screaming newborn. Two hapless hospital janitors delivered the baby and, in their panic, accidentally ripped the thing in half. The effect was so total, I felt queasy laughing at them as they tried to hide the evidence by eating it.

Crowds there don't boo (a tradition in sore need of revival) but they leave when they're bored and they sometimes heckle. The feral children of zonked-out parents are least inhibited in this regard, running in screeching packs and giving hell to even the best acts. This audience participation separates the cats from the kittens--the funniest performers attract more wisecracking than their peers because people want to be part of their show. Those performers, in turn, ascend to awe-inspiring comic heights by shutting down loudmouths with withering wit. I can't think of a single Seattle actor who has shown such hilarious grace under hostile pressure, nor can I imagine a better crash course in manipulating your audience.

It's easy to dismiss the Oregon Country Fair antics as so much Day-Glo and fairy wings, but do so at your peril. Even Hedwig and His Overrated Inch could learn a thing or two about smartass crowd control from these hippies.

brendan@thestranger.com

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