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San Francisco Mime Troupe keeps on going
By: Karen D'Souza
July 2, 2013

Don't let the name fool you. The San Francisco Mime Troupe has been loudly raising its voice in protest of the status quo for the last 54 years.

When its latest scathing social satire "Oil & Water" almost got scrapped because a few big grants fell through, the legendary rabble-rousers rolled up their sleeves and raised the dough in an emergency fundraising campaign to make sure that the show would go on. For free. At a park near you. All summer long.

"Political theater has never been easy to do," says the show's unflappable director, Joan Mankin. "It's always been a struggle. That's nothing new."

The iconic Bay Area theater always celebrates the Fourth of July by exercising its right to free speech by bringing political theater to the people. The Tony-winning theater collective may not charge a penny for the show, which runs through Sept. 2 at various parks from Mill Valley to Santa Cruz, but many arts lovers consider its work priceless as well as patriotic.

"S.F. Mime Troupe is certainly a Bay Area treasure, perhaps even a national treasure. For over 50 years they have made political theater fun and engaging and available to the entire community, dealing with local, national, and international issues -- from homelessness in the Mission to the battle for Palestinian rights, from bailouts for the banks and Wall Street to the horrors of U.S. imperialism across the globe," says Rush Rehm, artistic director of Stanford Summer Theater.

"They draw on the great tradition of melodrama ... the kind of drama in which you can tell who the guys and gals are with heart and soul, and who the guys and gals are who are driven by greed and the need for power. In the process, they show us the forces behind those people and ask us to think about where we stand."

Indeed, the troupers see theater as far more than mere entertainment. They see it as a way of raising awareness about the most pressing issues of our age.

Founded in 1959 by R.G. Davis, the company has made its name with a unique mix of politics, comedy and music that has been aptly described as part Karl Marx, part Marx Brothers. Over the years they have skewered the powers that be in a canon as pointed as it is cheeky.

They spoofed Wall Street corruption in "Too Big to Fail." They railed against the 1 percent in "For the Greater Good, or the Last Election." Now in "Oil & Water," they examine the most dire threats facing the environment from the greed of big business to the apathy of the average consumer.

"My favorite thing about them is that, through great craft and great silliness, they are able to bring hope to us in times that often seem quite hopeless," says monologuist Josh Kornbluth ("Red Diaper Baby," "Haiku Tunnel").

"As a theater artist and as a citizen, I consider the Mime Troupe collective, past and present, to be my heroes. As to why they have a hard time keeping afloat: They speak -- and sing -- the truth, rather than express views more acceptable to those who are in power. It is a (bleep) miracle that they're still going, and they deserve loads and loads of support."

Finding a way to handle the topic of ecological crisis without succumbing to despair was the key to making "Oil & Water" float.

"A lot of people have become jaded. They don't think we have it in us to change. They have accepted that the oil companies can do whatever they want," says writer-composer Pat Moran. "We want to do a play that shows there is strength in numbers. We've got to keep doing whatever we can. We've got to believe that things can change."

That challenge is what appealed to Mankin. Though best known as an actress, she has a long history with the troupe. She cut her teeth as a performer with the company in 1970.

"It's very important to us that the Mime Troupe stay true to its mission," she says. "The environment is the issue that we need to have a public forum on. There's not a lot of time to waste."

In order to keep costs down, this production spins around two short one-acts: "Deal with the Devil," in which Satan pleads with the president to save the planet because he doesn't want all of his customers to become extinct, and "Crude Intentions," the tale of an activist embittered by the despoiling of the Amazon Basin by big oil. The actors are going for enlightenment as well as laughter.

In the biting tradition of Brecht, the Mime Troupe believes in theater as a way to change the world by changing minds. For the record, the troupe remains committed to the idea that there is more to life than the almighty dollar. That's why most of its performances are free and the group refuses to take donations from many corporations. Goes without saying that the Mime Troupe makes no attempt to hide its ideological bent. This is as left as it gets.

Indeed, while some accuse the company of preaching to the converted, Moran suggests the summer show is a beloved ritual, and a shot in the arm, for its devoted audience members.

"A lot of people come to us year after year because they love the sense of ritual," says Moran. "It's a time for activists and others to come together as a community. You've got to find the joy in politics, or you get burned out. "

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