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Mime Troupe Turns 40 With Grace / Revue looks back at best of group's political theater
Steven Winn, Chronicle Theater Critic
December 12, 1999

There was plenty of long hair in the Palace of Fine Arts Theatre audience Monday, and a lot of it was gray. In the lobby, people chatted about Vietnam, Abbie Hoffman and last week's Seattle demonstrations. They also talked about their gray hair and grown children.

If this one-night-only feast of the San Francisco Mime Troupe's 40 years of political theater had the trappings of a 1960s peace-and-revolution reunion, something very different took place over the course of the evening. Sitting in respectful attention through 3 1/2 hours of excerpts from 17 productions, the capacity crowd got a museum-quality retrospective of populist theater history.

Sure, there were capitalist villains to boo and leftist triumphs to cheer. When the tenants of the 1977 hit "Hotel Universe" built the song "We Won't Move" into a defiant anthem of the aged poor, it was impossible not to feel a bitter collective thrill. The real-life pensioners were evicted from that doomed San Francisco residence hotel, and the site, near Chinatown, remains vacant today.


For the most part, topical theater dates. That's an inevitable function of its volatile immediacy. "Communism has an unfair advantage," a line from "The Dragon Lady Revenge" (1971) goes. "People like it." What remained and seemed durable Monday was the Troupe's legacy of extraordinary theatrical resourcefulness.

The evening began with a figure in a green commedia dell'arte mask piping on a flute (Charles Degelman from the 1962 "The Dowry") and ended with a rhythm- and-blues exultation from this past summer's "City for Sale." In between, Mime Troupers past and present restruck the chords of minstrel shows and melodramas, circuses and musicals, Kabuki and cartoons.

The feminist platform of Joan Holden's "The Independent Female, or Man Has Pride" (1970) may belong in a time capsule now. But the idea of arguing it with a wilting wife in a gingham dress (Joan Mankin) and her consciousness-raising comrade (Sharon Lockwood) in screaming yellow haute couture seemed freshly inspired.

So did Troupe founder R.G. Davis and Saul Landau's 1965 "A Minstrel Show, or Civil Rights in a Cracker Barrel." The sight of six actors in blackface capering like monkeys in turquoise coats and tails and then aping Harlem teenagers and an Irish cop looked as unsettling today -- maybe more so, in these euphemistic times -- as it did three decades ago.

Scenes from "Offshore," a 1993 response to the North American Free Trade Agreement, looked cunningly elegant with its sliding Japanese screens, military business suits and the actors' Kabuki stylizations. Lockwood, Audrey Smith and Wilma Bonet, all re-creating the factory-worker roles they played 15 years ago, bustled their way through Bruce Barthol's infectious "Defense Boogie" from the 1940s-style musical "Steeltown."

Multiple story lines threaded through Monday's richly enjoyable revue. As the stage crew wheeled ministages hung with brightly painted drops off and on, the Mime Troupe spooled through its history of people and shows. Peter Coyote pranced by as a feathered Scaramouche skimming profits from his neighbors' olive trees. A glib and bookish Steve Friedman offered a bright encyclopedic chat on Bertolt Brecht.

Barry "Shabaka" Henley whipped off his -- trench coat to reveal a beefier but still stat-crammed Factwino from that 1981 superhero show. Larry Pisoni, who migrated from the Mime Troupe to the Pickle Family Circus to Seattle, played the Beckett tramp trudging silently across the stage from time to time with an enormous steamer trunk on his back. He's a ringer for Karl Marx now, a kind of clown apotheosis of Mime Troupe politics.

Even as Monday's show celebrated the Troupe's collective energy and achievement, distinctive memories and personal favorites rose to the fore. An indoor setting and edited selections couldn't recapture the combustive thrust of the parks shows themselves. But whenever Lockwood stepped onstage, the experience of the original came rushing back.

For 27 of the company's 40 years (1968-95), Lockwood used her bristling physical style, whirring voice and exquisite timing to emblematize the urgent, deeply human, sometimes exhausted passion for social change that underscore everything the Troupe does. She was all over history Monday, as a bag lady and Teddy Roosevelt, a factory worker and revenge-crazed social worker. Then she disappeared into the great conga line that closed the show.

The audience got to relive it all in that finale, as commedia clowns and Kabuki businessmen, Jews, Palestinians and plain old American workers got one last dance together before the millennium.

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