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S.F. Mime Troupe's rootin' tootin' Wild West satire is too scattershot to zing the Bush administration
Robert Hurwitt, Chronicle Theater Critic
July 05, 2004

press photo
"Showdown at Crawford Gulch" features (from left) Victor Toman, Ed Holmes, Velina Brown and Lisa Hori-Garcia. Chronicle photo by Christina Koci Hernandez

Sitting Attentive ManShowdown at Crawford Gulch: Musical political satire. By Michael Gene Sullivan. Directed by Keiko Shimosato. (Through Sept. 6. San Francisco Mime Troupe in various Bay Area parks. 80 minutes. Free. Call (415) 285-1717 or visit www.sfmt.org). "Even if the president says something, a real reporter confirms it," the idealistic frontier newspaper editor objects in "Showdown at Crawford Gulch." Unfortunately, the reports, unexamined claims and just plain rumors of Comanche terrorist activity are coming so fast, she barely has time to publish, let alone check them. And that's no accident. The speculator who lusts for the natural resources on Comanche lands knows that, "Once Americans are afraid, you can get them to do anything."

Any and all similarities to current events (and media coverage) are intentional. The nation is bogged down in a war of highly questionable justification. It's an election year. And the San Francisco Mime Troupe is back in the parks with its annual free summer show dedicated to rallying the left, providing plentiful laughter, exercising its patriotic duty of dissent and -- this year -- encouraging people to get to the polls to affect democratic regime change.

The intent is much more clearly conceived than the show, however. As seen Saturday, the first day of the Mime Troupe's traditional Fourth of July opening weekend in Dolores Park, "Showdown" is often very funny. Its wit is reliably intelligent (the better informed you are, the more quips you'll catch). It's performed with the troupe's typical verve and comic expertise. But the few hundred spectators on a sunny, windy afternoon (considerably fewer than the company usually attracts on the Fourth itself) saw a show that seemed unusually unready to open.

Written by Michael Gene Sullivan -- the troupe's chief playwright since the retirement of the prolific Joan Holden a few years ago -- "Showdown" is another genre spoof in the company's long-established format. It's a Western, and a West Texas Western at that, complete with witty nods to Sergio Leone in composer-music director Jason Sherbundy's wry, tuneful country score. After taking its satire directly to the White House for the past several years -- with "1600 Transylvania Avenue," "Mr. Smith Goes to Obskuristan" and "Veronique of the Mounties" -- the troupe has taken a less direct, more parable-style approach this time.

That's probably a wise move, even if it does mean sacrificing Amos Glick and Ed Holmes' reliably incisive, hilarious caricatures of a certain president and vice president. It would be hard for that kind of satire to compete with the documentary footage of the same people in Michael Moore's blockbuster "Fahrenheit 9/11," for one thing. And it seems clear that Sullivan, trying to choose the most vital satirical tangent in a key election year, felt overwhelmed by an embarrassment of riches.

But he and the Mime Troupe collective haven't honed their satire sharply enough yet. "Showdown" is a collection of some fine songs, sharply drawn characters and cogent satire too loosely strung together by a parable that tries to encompass too much.

It takes place in Crawford Gulch -- right, that Crawford, Texas -- a typically dusty, weathered-clapboard-walls and wood sidewalk Western town in Jon Wai-Keung Lowe's cleverly versatile set. It's the latter 19th century and the little town "founded by a bunch of poor whites and ex-slaves" -- as explained in the beguiling narrative ballad sung by Victor Toman -- has been living in peaceful coexistence with its Comanche neighbors.

Until Cyrus T. Bogspavin (a slithery-evil Glick) arrives, that is. Dressed in the top hat, checked-suit finery of an urban con man (sharp costumes by Callie Floor and Cassandra Carpenter), Bogspavin gets off the stagecoach with quickly escalating accounts of an attack by Comanches -- overriding the objections of the only other witness, Constance Adams (the wonderful Velina Brown) by convincing her that she's forgotten she was knocked unconscious.

Terrorist hysteria takes over. Bogspavin keeps pushing it, for reasons that soon become clear, aided by the venality of the mayor (the always comically adept Holmes), and by the fears of the townsfolk. Constance, who's inherited the town newspaper ("the first black lady editor in the state"), and her wannabe hotshot star reporter Nellie -- a truant teen tomboy (a brightly driven Lisa Hori-Garcia) -- unwittingly stoke the fires by printing every wild rumor and not-so-reliable report from the army sent in to conquer the "savages."

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