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'Damaged Care' Takes a Gritty, Funny Shot at HMOs
Darly H. Miller, Times Staff Writer
October 10, 1998

Bologna General was a county hospital with one of the few remaining emergency rooms in the area, open to all who needed care. But the hospital has just been privatized, and the new for-profit owners have closed the ER, replacing it with a triage hotline: 1-(800) NOT-SICK. The staff has been so downsized that a single nurse cares for an entire ward, manning a computerized Robo-Nurse console that delivers medicines to rows upon rows of patients through a tangle of tubes.

Welcome to what the San Francisco Mime Troupe foresees as managed care of the not-too-distant future. The roving company visits the Los Angeles Theatre Center through Sunday, performing "Damaged Care," another of its an unabashedly political, unapologetically one-sided shows.

The 36-year-old troupe specializes in a style of agitprop theater that is in-your-face but doggedly good-natured. Think of it as "political musical comedy," as one company member put it in comments following Thursday's opening. (Yes, they speak. This is "mime" used in the sense of "mimicry.") It's wacky good fun, and though the current show is more polished than some of the company's past ones, it remains gritty and rough-edged, as befits its roots in street theater.

The performing style for "Damaged Care" is clownish commedia dell'arte, complete with masks and archetypal characterizations--comic but crafty peasant hero; his worldly wise female cohort; buffoonish braggart and so on. Songs punctuate the action, with underscoring throughout by a hot instrumental trio.

The show regards managed care as a system that has changed health from a necessity to a commodity. As written by Joan Holden and Karim Scarlata, the show can be read as a cautionary tale not only about the medical industry but about industry in general--as "efficiency" becomes a euphemism for staffing cuts and the remaining employees are expected to do more with fewer resources. Customers (or, in this case, patients) suffer, too.

The hero and heroine are Arlecchino (Michael Gene Sullivan), an uninsured worker with a growing, moving, French-speaking lump on his shoulder; and Nurse Basil (Velina Brown), a modern-day Florence Nightingale in the newly privatized hospital where Arlecchino seeks care. The main villain is Dr. Capitano (Ed Holmes), the big-bellied, bottom-line-driven CEO of the company that has just taken over the hospital.

Among the gags: A construction worker rushes in with an enormous flattened hand with tire tracks across it; he is, of course, told to sit down and fill out forms. In a dream ballet, a frazzled Nurse Basil envisions a happy, skipping future of universal health care.

Under Dan Chumley's direction, it all plays like a demented fusion of the NBC medical drama "ER" and Scott Adams' corporate-mentality-skewering "Dilbert" cartoons. Because no one in the cast is a particularly angelic singer, however, the songs are a bit painful.

In addition to playing music that invokes jazz, klezmer, Central/South American and other styles, the band--Eric Crystal, Liberty Ellman and Derrek Philipps--provides sound effects, as well as the voices in an electronic voicemail hell, the show's best bit.

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