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Guerrillas of Agitprop Fight to Stay Relevant

December 27, 2009

As part of its 50th-anniversary celebrations, the San Francisco Mime Troupe recently led its first “Anti-Capitalist, Anti-Consumption” street-theater workshop. That afternoon-long event culminated in a performance outside the flagship Old Navy store on Market Street in downtown San Francisco.

Pretending to be sales assistants and shoppers, troupe members led the workshop participants underneath a gaudy “Time to Shop” sign and then mechanically exchanged fake dollars for bits of cardboard with the word “stuff” scrawled on them. At the end of the sketch, counterfeit coins flew, as the performers engaged in a frenzied stampede for last-minute bargains.

Ed Holmes, the workshop leader and a longtime company member, said the three-minute “live political cartoon” attracted around 15 passers-by with an additional 5 to 10 stopping when the fake money started flying. “A few people got the point,” he said.

With television, blogs and social networking Web sites able to disseminate political messages far more widely than live theater, you have to question the relevance of the Mime Troupe’s polemical approach today. For the first three decades of its existence, this political theater group openly questioned United States policy and helped root out political hypocrisy.

But times have changed, and the company’s brand of broad political satire steeped in zany commedia dell’arte traditions feels outmoded. Theater can still be taken seriously as a medium for political discourse, but the Mime Troupe — with its limited reach, old-fashioned aesthetics and small budget — struggles to make a political and theatrical impact these days.

The dancer, director and mime artist R. G. Davis founded the San Francisco Mime Troupe in 1959 as a vehicle for radical political commentary and theatrical experimentation. Despite the word “mime” in its name, the group was far from silent. For a while its brand of guerilla theater, performed free in public spaces throughout its Bay Area home and as far away as Berlin, earned the company a reputation as a grass-roots political power. Troupe members were arrested on obscenity charges on more than one occasion in the early 1960s. The group was also one of the first American theater companies to perform in revolutionary Cuba and Sandinista Nicaragua.

In 1967 the troupe caused an uproar when it traveled around universities in the Midwest presenting “L’Amant Militaire,” a Vietnam War satire adapted from an 18th-century Carlo Goldoni play, at the same time recruiters from a napalm manufacturer were visiting those campuses. Closer to home, the early troupe helped derail a proposal to use public funds to tear down a building that housed grass-roots community organizations for the construction of a parking lot for Davies Symphony Hall.

In recent years, however, the Mime Troupe’s efforts have had considerably less impact. It still performs free shows in parks around the Bay Area and other parts of the state, and its longstanding appearances in Dolores Park on the Fourth of July and Labor Day weekends continue to attract hundreds. But many people seem to attend the productions these days to have their liberal political views confirmed or simply to enjoy a picnic and show in the sun.

Every now and then the company creates a production that engages the intelligence. In 2006 “Godfellas,” a show about the ills of spiritual dogma, married a wisecracking text with pithy musical numbers to examine not just religion but also blind faith in all its guises. More often than not, however, Mime Troupe productions end up subverting artistry in favor of left-wing dogma.

This year’s “Too Big to Fail,” about the implosion of the credit system, bashed audiences over the head with simplistic moral fables and told a tale of a greedy lion named Citibank. And the boringly liberal “Doing Good” (2005) was less effective as an agitprop pamphlet against American intervention in the third world. Meanwhile, a decade has passed since the troupe performed its last guerilla theater act: a version of “Ubu Roi” outside the Federal Building to protest cuts in arts financing.

It’s telling that the Mime Troupe is celebrating its golden anniversary with documentary screenings and exhibitions that focus on its early heyday; the company’s more recent history just isn’t all that enthralling.

Yet political theater is alive and well in the Bay Area, as proved by engaging productions like “This World in a Woman’s Hands,” Marcus Gardley’s drama for the Shotgun Players of Berkeley, about female workers in the Richmond, Calif., shipyards in World War II. And the Mime Troupe, with its intimacy, ability to respond quickly to current events and stealthy approach to infiltrating public spaces, can demonstrate that live performance is still, in some ways, an ideal medium for political commentary. Getting the message across, however, requires a level of subtlety and imagination that lies beyond the reach of many theater artists.

To survive, the Mime Troupe may need to find a new theatrical vocabulary for expressing its political viewpoints and work harder to question lazy liberal mores. The members may also have to take greater risks again. A three-minute sketch outside Old Navy might make an impression on just a few onlookers. But taking their antics inside the store would most likely get greater attention.



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