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Mime Troupe dishes up raucous political commentary
Andrea Perkins
From the July 26-August 2, 2000 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

GE Brings Good Foods to Life: For 'Eating It,' the San Francisco Mime Troupe takes on genetically engineered foods.

FOR MIMES, the San Francisco Mime Troupe makes a lot of noise. That's right, the troupe talks, and I'm not talkin' chit-chat. The San Francisco Mime Troupe uses the word "mime" in the classical sense: not as in "pantomime" but as in "mimic," or "the exaggeration of daily life through storytelling and song." Don't worry; these unorthodox mimes won't climb invisible ropes or get trapped inside invisible boxes during a pair of free shows at San Lorenzo Park Saturday and Sunday.

Pre publicity Photo
Photograph by David Allen

Director Dan Chumley dropped out of Harvard in 1967 to join the troupe after seeing a performance about the Vietnam War. He was fascinated by what he describes as "the welding together of politics and art in a kind of theater of argument which invites a contest of ideas." Take that approach and stir it with commedia dell'arte, and you've got the San Francisco Mime Troupe. "We pry people open with comedy," continues Chumley. "When people laugh, they understand."

For 41 years, the troupe's reputation for scathing pro-socialist political commentary has grown as the company continues on its mission to engage the topics of the day in the wackiest way possible. This summer, the troupe sets its sights on market-driven genetic engineering with Eating It, a musical science-fiction satire set in the immediate future.

In this worst-case Frankenfoods scenario, a pair of genetic engineers get rich and famous by creating the disease-resistant Super Corn, which can pop and butter itself. Unfortunately, this imperialistic vegetable also strangles any plant that crosses its path. After Super Corn's success, one of the engineers--the good one--develops an even more powerful seed and dreams heroically of ending world hunger while her husband, the bad engineer transformed by greed, only dreams of increasing his profit.

Before unleashing the new superseed at the World Food Conference (where the U.S. president hopes to triumphantly declare himself "the food president"), the good engineer begins to worry about the seed's environmental impact. Suddenly, an old man appears from a bleak future overrun with mutant plants, where the rich live in domes while the poor hopelessly wander the earth. But before the time traveler can save the world, he bonks his head and gets amnesia.

Using farce and melodrama to tackle the big issues raised by genetically modified food, Eating It is more fiction than science. Still, says Chumley, the message cannot be dismissed. "The real danger is not the one we depict, where a mutant crop takes over the world," he explains, "but the overdependence caused by monocropism and monoeconomies. We are living on this planet as if we are aliens. We don't really think about anything before we do it; we just think we'll fix it in postproduction. But we are accumulating error--like debt--and our eco-situation can't put up with that indefinitely."

Eating It suggests that, when it comes to feeding the world, genetically engineered food may not be the only option. "We could feed the world by not making Third World countries pay off corporate debt," Chumley suggest, "or by developing alternative farming methods that would also provide more jobs."

Every summer, the 11-member San Francisco Mime Troupe performs for free (donations welcome) in Bay Area parks. The troupe has won numerous Bay Area Theater Critics' Circle awards, OBIE awards, the Bay Area Media Alliance's Golden Gadfly Award for Lifetime Achievement--and even a Tony Award for excellence in regional theater. The goal is to reach the broadest audience possible, and the troupe offers comments and discussions with the public following the performance.

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