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The grave threat from the Great White North
Robert Hurwitt, Chronicle Theatre Critic
Monday, July 7, 2003

A big crowd attends the Dolores Park premiere of the San Francisco Mime Troupe's "Veronique of the Mounties."
Chronicle photo by Chris Stewart
Sitting Clapping ManThe terror alert has been raised from magenta to ultraviolet (the threat is so high you can't see it). American troops and those of "our Coalition ally" (Greenland) are massed on the borders ready to begin "Operation Frozen Freedom."

Yes, America is under threat once more and the San Francisco Mime Troupe is riding to the rescue. Friday, as every Fourth of July, the troupe opened its annual free summer show before a vast crowd in Dolores Park. "Veronique of the Mounties," this year's offering, didn't look quite ready to open. But a clever concept, a few terrific scenes and some dynamic performances made for more than a satisfactory Independence Day, only-in-San-Francisco style.

It's also in the best Mime Troupe tradition. "Veronique" is a broad but pointed satire on the national political situation in the company's standard musical comedy format (like a less well-crafted "Urinetown" with more of an edge).

The action takes place in the near future. Being under threat has become standard operating procedure in America, though the threat the troupe perceives is not the same as that touted by the current administration. Having already "liberated" Iraq, Syria, Venezuela and France, the White House ("It's up to us to save the world from itself") is searching for a new imminent threat to American liberties to shore up the Cheney-Rice ticket's chances in the 2008 presidential election.

In a stirring "Superior People" duet, rife with sexual undertones, Dick Cheney and Condoleezza Rice (Mime Troupe veterans Ed Holmes and Velina Brown) team up and choose the next target: Canada. As the by-now monolithic national media starts promoting the newest war -- side panels in the set converting into TVs -- the distraught Canadian prime minister (Keiko Shimosato) and General Preston (Holmes) choose a top agent to send south of the border to derail the war effort -- Veronique (Brown) of the Mounties.

In a script -- by troupe mainstays Michael Gene Sullivan and Bruce Barthol (with help from Ellen Callas) -- that didn't seem fully developed Friday, the plot follows Veronique as she's pursued by super-patriot Zeke (Conrad Cimarra) and agents of the SS-like Homeland Security System (HSS, not coincidentally). With the aid of a resourceful librarian (Shimosato) and a homeless war veteran (Holmes), Veronique infiltrates Cheney's undisclosed location (hereby disclosed). Everything hinges on a magical maple leaf, a secret book of librarian lore and Veronique's striking resemblance to Rice.

The story's still a bit thin, and perhaps too full of extraneous characters -- though some, like the family of fundamentalists heading for the Lambs of Jesus Small Arms Jamboree, are hilarious. As funny as it is, it could use more running gags, and some of those it has haven't been honed yet. Sullivan, who also directed, hasn't pulled the show together with the standard Mime Troupe sharp timing evident in the interchanges between Brown and Holmes or Shimosato.

But it was clear Friday that "Veronique" wasn't finished. The mountain- scape set -- a complex design (by Cimarra) of rotating panels, pop-up signs and trapdoors (some of which malfunctioned) -- was being put together for the first time as the audience gathered. The opening was delayed almost an hour as the actors waited for last-minute costumes (bright cartoon designs by Huy Tran) to be delivered (meaning they'd had no chance to rehearse the many fast costume changes).

The songs are terrific. Composed by musical director Jason Sherbundy (keyboard player in the adept accompanying trio), with typically sharp lyrics by Barthol, they set the standard the rest of "Veronique" should reach as it makes its way around Bay Area parks this summer.

Holmes' homeless vet is a woebegone delight, growling an urban-blues "A Shot and a Beer" and Cimarra's Zeke shines in the patriotic rocker "Team Player." Bekka Fink, Christian Cagigal and Michael Carreiro -- who do yeoman work in many small parts -- light up the park as the fundamentalist family in an energetic, rousing hymn, "God's Little Warriors." Brown's powerful blues voice infuses the plaintive "Canada Adieu" with fervent mock melodrama.

Brown and Holmes anchor the show, with Holmes a wonderfully hissable autocratic villain in his by-now well-established Cheney role. Brown deftly distinguishes between her ambitious, troubled Rice and her dedicated but apprehensive -- and out-of-her-depth -- Mountie, gracing Veronique with comic "aw jeez" homages to Frances McDormand in "Fargo." Shimosato provides unerring support with a quick, crisp performance as the librarian.

It isn't just about foreign policy. The satire hits everything from the erosion of civil liberties to the rape of the environment, political cronyism, privatization of public services and, of course, George W. Bush ("Maybe I shoulda gone AWOL, done some coke, watched out for myself," Holmes' incarcerated veteran muses; "maybe then I'd be in the White House"). But through foreign policy, the Mime Troupe finds telling comparisons with our democratic neighbor to the north.

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