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Snappy one-liners can't rescue the Mime Troupe's too-obvious political message

Wednesday, Jul 13 2005
On Independence Day, Dolores Park was transformed into an open-air theater. Amid a sea of sun hats and sunburned holiday flesh, a young man -- wearing a tight green soccer sweater, a pair of enormous ski goggles, and jeans so low they exposed the cleft between his ass cheeks -- sat in the grass making soft whooping sounds while trying to catch invisible flies between his thumb and forefinger. After a while, he got up, fired a pretend arrow from an imaginary bow, and sat down again. A little way off, a grizzled old man who looked a bit like Saddam Hussein upon being dragged out of his spider hole, smoked a cigar and talked in a slurred voice. A red-faced guy in a baseball cap told Saddam to piss off. The old man responded by rolling around on his stomach, sputtering unintelligibly, and emitting smoke like a faulty car exhaust pipe. Planes flew loudly overhead; dogs barked; the J train rumbled by. And somewhere in the middle of it all, a group of people dressed in 1970s bell-bottoms and tie-dye shirts stood on a makeshift stage, ranting to anyone who'd listen about the ills of American intervention abroad.

If it weren't for the fact that the actors in the San Francisco Mime Troupe's new touring show, Doing Good, had mikes, catchy live accompanying music, and a sizable audience fanning out around the stage and up the park's steep slopes with rugs and picnics, it would have been difficult to distinguish their antics from the rest of the impromptu theater going on that day. But the Tony Award-winning theater company, with its broad, commedia dell'arte-based political satires full of stock characters and simple plots, is such a venerable institution around these parts, such a local treasure, that -- as long as the weather is fine and the entertainment is free -- people will come and watch its shows regardless of the quality.

Written by troupe old-timers Keiko Shimosato and Ellen Callas, along with newbies Erin Blackwell and Jeffrey Morris, Doing Good takes its inspiration from John Perkins' controversial memoir Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. The book describes Perkins' years helping the U.S. government and multinational corporations coerce foreign leaders into serving U.S. foreign policy and awarding lucrative contracts to American business. The troupe's riff on Perkins' real-life John le Carré-style thriller follows the lives of a young, white, middle-class, American couple, James and Molly, and their complicity in the homeland's less-than-benign interests in nations as widespread as Ecuador, Iran, Indonesia, and Panama. To avoid military service in Vietnam in 1968, James marries Molly and the pair move to the remote village of Pobre, Ecuador, on Peace Corps business. Very soon, the couple's innocuous attempts at "doing good" through building schoolhouses and educating local women about childbirth are overtaken by the arrival of a major U.S. corporation, which aims to bring Ecuador "out of the Dark Ages" by building infrastructure with loans calculated to cripple the local economy.

Since Bush Jr. came to office, the Mime Troupe has often dined out on the present administration's multitudinous misdemeanors. But while 2001's 1600 Transylvania Avenue (attacking corporate involvement in politics) and last year's Showdown at Crawford Gulch (which sent up the government's profiteering fear campaign) managed to counterbalance the troupe's trademark agitprop didactics with witty writing and deft acting, there's unfortunately little of aesthetic merit in Doing Good to mitigate the terrifying obviousness of its bludgeoning message.

The writing, though seamless (which is no small feat when multiple scribes are involved), is riddled with banal exposition. There are, however, one or two revealing moments. A scene in a Jakarta street, for instance, in which Molly bargains a local batik seller's wares down to a rock-bottom price cleverly illustrates the character's gob-smacking double standards, especially when contrasted with her crusade against the use of Nestlé formula by local breast-feeding mothers. The show is also blessed with some snappy one-liners, my personal favorite being a description of contemporary American imperialism as "Genghis Khan with credit cards." But the general superficiality of the characterizations and storytelling makes Doing Good feel like an attempt by medieval mummers to educate the illiterate masses about the ways of the devil. I was half expecting to see a fiery Hell Mouth trundled out from the wings. Alas, the most exciting visual effects in this production were some handwritten (and often illegible) signs scrawled with -- and I'm mostly guessing here as I couldn't quite read them -- statistics backing up U.S. crimes against humanity.

Since actor R.G. Davis, an alumnus of the legendary Actors' Workshop, founded the Mime Troupe in 1959, the group's brand of "guerrilla theater," performed free in public spaces nationwide and abroad, has occupied a dangerous and exciting space in cultural life. The troupe was the first U.S. theater company to perform in revolutionary Cuba and Sandinista Nicaragua; and, in 1967, L'Amant Militaire, a Vietnam War satire adapted from a Carlo Goldoni play, toured Midwest university campuses in tandem with recruiters from a napalm manufacturer, Dow Chemical Co. Starring Peter Coyote (then Peter Cohon), the production raised merry hell and earned the troupe a reputation approaching Black Panther-esque proportions.

There's a time and a place for left-wing agitprop theater, and I'm sorry to say that San Francisco in 2005 fits neither. For one thing, audiences have generally grown too sophisticated for the simple, pedantic performance style practiced by the Mime Troupe. For another, the messages have gotten very old. For a third, telling Bay Area residents that their country is doing bad things abroad isn't much of a revelation -- half the people who live here are for Californian devolution and the other half have been thinking of immigrating to Canada for quite some time now.

The question is: When will the Mime Troupe stop expending its considerable creative energies on problems and start dreaming up solutions? After 46 years of banging on about this country's crimes, it's time to stop the self-flagellation and start the rehab. Instead of battering audiences over the head with self-loathing, fire-and-brimstone song lyrics like "Blinded by arrogance, deaf to our pleas/ One day, America, you'll be down on your knees," the troupe should consider figuring out ways in which it might -- to echo the statutory annual pre-performance blessing by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence -- "do justice" through its theatrical endeavors rather than just "do good." In the meantime, if the Mime Troupe's work doesn't provoke you, the random theatrical "sideshows" going on in the park might.

About The Author

Chloe Veltman


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