‘It’s Chaos, It’s Theater’ — Mime Troupe Returns
Friday, July 11, 2003
There are few modern aspirants to Berthold Brecht's throne of thorns, the proudly avowed political, comic opera. This is both a matter of pride and of concern to Berkeley's Ed Holmes, a 17-year member of San Francisco Mime Troupe.
As it has since 1963, the Mime Troupe will perform for free in local parks this Saturday and Sunday, July 12 and 13, at Cedar Rose Park in Berkeley.
“I’m a physical comedian,” said Holmes. “I like to satirize the powers that be and the Mime Troupe is the only company that does it. That's the combination—left wing, physical comedy and outdoor theater. It's magic. I've done normal theater but it just doesn't compare."
Even the process of writing an opera unfolds uniquely with the Mime Troupe, although the story line usually develops from the news of the day. The current show, “Veronica of the Mounties,” explores (loosely) America's obsessive and militant fixation with national security through armed conflict.
As each enemy nation is defeated a new one leaps out of the shadows until even Canada becomes a reasonable suspect (in fiction mirroring reality, such a scenario was actually explored several months ago by a nationally circulated conservative magazine published out of Washington, D.C.).
“Basically, everybody sits in on the meetings and we throw things out,” Holmes said. “Because it’s a collective process it has to go through everybody’s brain a couple of times, so it’s very slow. It’s a pain in the ass but I like it that way. It's chaos. It's theater.
“We go from zero to an opening in two months, which is idiotic and sometimes it shows. Our opening days are real rough—sets are falling apart, costumes aren't there, people don't know their lines yet because their lines just got changed that day. So it's a real crude process. There are people who come to our opening day show just to see us spin out, to see the crashes, to see the flaming fireballs of missed cues. Then they'll come and see it at the end. In a month it gets tight. It becomes a well-oiled comedy and satire machine. We had 3,000 people on opening day in Dolores Park. It's like an event for a lot of people. How to spend a patriotic Fourth of July? Political satire.”
When Holmes first joined the Mime Troupe, there were 15 members. Today there are eight. The collective is looking for new and younger members.
“There's a four to one schlep-to-show ratio in the Troupe; for every one hour of show on stage, performing, you have four hours of loading and unloading. We get these young people in and they trade us their backs and we trade them our Mime minds, we teach them the style,” he said. “They're burning with political passion. They want to do theater but they can't live in San Francisco. It's too expensive to hang out and work themselves into the Troupe. So the collective is shrinking and getting older because there's no young blood coming in.”
Holmes plays three different characters in Veronica: Vice President Dick Cheney, General Preston, and a homeless war veteran.
“One of my favorite things to talk about when we first start a show every year is, we've got to have heads on sticks,” said Holmes. “It’s like that Utah Phillips quote: ‘The Earth isn’t dying, it's being murdered. And those who are doing it have names, addresses and faces.’ So that’s what I want to do. Let's put the heads up on the sticks and say who they are. We're doing these little fictional stories so you can see who is who.”
Every year the Mime Troupe takes the show on the road, around the bay, across the country and at times, around the world.
“I've been to Hong Kong, Korea, the Philippines, Jerusalem, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Cuba, Nicaragua. God, where else?” Holmes recalled. “In a lot of places we've been to, like in Germany, everybody speaks English so there's been no problem, [but] we played audiences in Korea that didn't know English, but they loved our physical slapstick. They could follow our story. We were doing a story about the health care crisis in America, and we're doing it Commedia-style, with the masks and those old Italian clown characters. They loved it. It transcends language. Something about it, the physical character, gets across to anybody. Last year we went to Fresno. We played to 800 people in Fresno. Eight hundred people hungry for our kind of thing. That’s really encouraging.”
The SF Mime Troupe presents Veronique of the Mounties, the latest in nearly a half century long tradition of political musical comedies, for free in a park near you.