Brave New World for San Francisco Mime Troupe
December 16, 1988
Rip is a little out of it. One sunny day during the summer of '68--just before taking off for the Democratic National Convention in Chicago--he had a bad acid trip, curled up in a spot in Golden Gate Park and fell asleep. Now he's waking up . . . in 1988.
In a twist on Washington Irving's "Rip Van Winkle," the politically conscious San Francisco Mime Troupe presents Joan Holden and Ellen Callas' "Ripped Van Winkle," arriving today for two nights at Culver City High School's Robert Frost Auditorium to benefit Nicaraguan relief efforts.
It's a brave new world for Rip. Crack dealers, skinheads, joggers--and (gulp) yuppies. Everywhere he looks, the spiritual and social commitments of the '60s have been replaced by the self-centered, hard-hearted materialism of the '80s. His girlfriend now runs a PR firm; her daughter is punked-out and suicidal. His best friend has become a cynical lawyer who defends drug dealers. His apartment is now a yuppie restaraunt.
"Yuppies are easy targets," admitted longtime troupe member Arthur Holden, who's playing Rip. "But they're infected with what we feel is the disease of this country: the inability of people to understand that they're in a position--both individually and together--to make the changes that are necessary. Post-modernist art doesn't stir up people to make those changes. And there's a prevailing late '70s-'80s malaise: 'I've got mine; (to hell with) the rest of you.' "
The actor was both heartened and dismayed by what he encountered in the troupe's recent two-month national tour of "Ripped."
"There's a blight on this country," he sighed. "Parts of Detroit that look like they've been hit by a bomb. The streams are dirty, the roads are dirty. There's garbage everywhere. You don't have to be supersensitive to see it: Homeless people are everywhere you go. Crack. An enormous problem with drugs. The court system is totally jammed up. Even in such bucolic places as Yellow Springs, Ohio, people were tuned into this."
The troupe was begun in 1959 by R. G. Davis as a school and performance forum for mime, dance, poetry and underground movies. In 1961-62, he incorporated Commedia dell'Arte and established a tradition of free park performances (with the hat passed for donations).
In the following years, political issues became more and more a theme in the group's comical, exaggerated work--including "Minstrel Show" (which took on Dow Chemical); "The Dragon Lady's Revenge" (CIA drug trafficking during the Vietnam War); "Frijoles" (on food prices); "Hotel Universe" (housing), "Squash" (the energy crisis), and "Factwino" (a series starring a black comic-book hero).
The troupe's boldness and enduring popularity haven't gone unnoticed. In 1987, the New York Theatre Wing presented it with a special Tony Award, given for excellence in regional theater.
Holden laughs when asked if the honor signaled the troupe's entrance into the cultural mainstream.
"The Tony was a big surprise," he said. "We're certainly grateful, but we don't know why they gave it to us. It's probably because we survived so long. That's OK; any reason is fine. But I think we were an aberration. The Tonys are very centralized in New York. This is an offbeat one, given in a contrary-New York spirit. And it's voted on by national critics, who probably have a better sense of what's going on around the country."
Holden believes he's not alone, that there are a lot of people out there who share his good old-fashioned '60s liberalism and passion. And he flatly rejects the idea that the Mime Troupe--like Rip--could simply be an amusing anachronism, a bunch of people out of time and out of step with current ideals.
"I think we bring a certain joy to what we do that counteracts a lack of gloss and high-tech," he argued. "Performance art, mixed media; there's a lot of it around. But there's no humane comedy. It's all very self-focused: ironic, cynical. It doesn't make people laugh or give them a sense that the world doesn't have to go to hell in a handbasket. We tell them they can get off the train anytime they want. They just have to believe that it's possible."