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"2012 — The Musical!": S.F. Mime Troupe Big on Idealogy, Short on Entertainment 

Wednesday, Jul 13 2011
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In medieval England, townspeople would gather on festival days to see local guildsmen perform pageants based on stories from the Bible. These pageants, known as mystery plays, featured broad characterizations of heroes and villains, with vernacular dialogue punched up to broaden the stories' appeal. Judging by the number of surviving manuscripts from communities, we can fairly say that the mystery plays were a longstanding popular smash.

These plays were never official functions of the Church. They weren't meant to be evangelical, either. Instead, they served as an ongoing opportunity for townspeople to dramatize and reinforce each other's largely unquestioned beliefs. You might even say that the practice of medieval English drama bears a passing resemblance to the practice of political theater in contemporary urban America, with performers and audiences gathering to rehearse and applaud their shared orthodoxies.

On that score, the San Francisco Mime Troupe is about as medieval as contemporary theater gets. The Tony Award–winning company would prefer to place itself in the tradition of commedia dell'arte, the broad style of outdoor sketch comedy popular in early-modern Italy. But the commedia tradition doesn't quite line up with the offering here — especially the Mime Troupe's tendency to spit up giant chunks of undigested ideology.

The company's newest show, 2012 — The Musical!, made its world premiere in Dolores Park over the Fourth of July weekend. As I took my seat behind a gentleman who gamely sported a handlebar mustache, a straw boater, a red jockstrap, and nothing else, the woman to my left asked me how the Mime Troupe could possibly maintain its Bush-era success during the age of Obama. "Dick Cheney was always the best villain," she fretted. "Who's going to be the bad guy these days?"

She needn't have worried. As the play opens, we see President Barack Obama hounded by allegorical representations of Goldman Sachs, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and — somewhat less allegorical — Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, all of them seething with contempt for the president's professed populist ideals. ("Deregulate thou must, or face our wrath," Goldman Sachs sneers. And yes, that's about the level of subtlety you should expect from the dialogue.)

The story goes something like this. Theater BAM!, a small political troupe, is on the verge of bankruptcy when it receives a $50,000 bailout offer from a consortium of vegan capitalists known as Green Planet Incorporated. After much hand-wringing, the company decides to take the money and produce a musical about climate change, only to discover that Green Planet is in cahoots with some of the nation's scummiest corporate bigwigs. The show ends with Theater BAM! asking a question familiar to anyone who's ever made money in a less-than-seemly fashion: "Why do we work for a system that makes us work for our enemies?"

As always, it's tough to criticize the San Francisco Mime Troupe on purely theatrical grounds. Ingeniously staged by Wilma Bonet, with smart choreography by Victor Toman, 2012 — The Musical! is a fine example of outdoor theater in the broad, slapstick commedia style. The six-person ensemble is outstanding in multiple roles, and the house band punctuates the action with clever flourishes. The songs by Pat Moran and Bruce Barthol are tuneful, even if the lyrics sound a bit too much like slogans. (You'll be forgiven if you don't walk away singing lines like "Forget the profits, protect the planet.") But for all this considerable artistry and stagecraft, the heavy-handed dialogue by Michael Gene Sullivan guarantees that you'll feel more bludgeoned than entertained.

One of the play's themes, and one of its key inconsistencies, is the notion that fearmongering is a detestable way to keep and maintain political power. The villains repeatedly tell us that they can accomplish their nefarious goals only if people remain afraid — afraid of Muslim invasion, of government takeovers, of death panels, or of whatever other horrors the American public is capable of imagining with the assistance of their neoconservative overlords.

Trouble is, the San Francisco Mime Troupe indulges in the same sensationalist fearmongering that renders Fox News so endlessly unwatchable. In the world imagined here, every corporation is always the most horrible version of itself. Practical compromise is the stuff of doom. All-or-nothing ideological purity is the order of the day; debate alone is somehow a kind of debasement. Despite the company's claims to the contrary, "the people" aren't the heroes in this show. Doctrine is the hero. And on that score, the Mime Troupe isn't progressive so much as downright medieval.

About The Author

Chris Jensen

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