caricatures, music and mayhem. Yes, they say, censorship of dissent abounds,
the economy is trouncing on arts funding, it's hard to stay topical with
events moving so fast, and they're angry and tired.
But "that makes doing satire feel more urgent than ever," said Velina Brown
of San Francisco, who plays both the villain (Condoleezza Rice) and heroine
(Veronique Du Bois) in this summer's show, "Veronique of the Mounties in
Operation: 'Frozen Freedom.' "
The production, which opened July 4 in front of 3,000 people in Dolores Park
and by the end of the summer will have made its way to the East Bay, the
Peninsula and the North Bay, takes on what director Sullivan, who co-wrote the
script, describes as the administration's "kill-them-and-let-God-sort-it-out
Rice and Dick Cheney are searching for a new imminent threat to bolster their
2008 presidential ticket and -- after a rousing, flirtation-fueled musical
number, "Superior People" -- settle on Canada. As the U.S. media takes its
cue with splashy reports from the border, Canadians retaliate by sending agent
Veronique southward to retrieve the golden maple that has brainwashed
Americans into believing everything their government says.
Before it's over, there are sexual shenanigans, a car chase, an identity
switcheroo and zingers ridiculing everyone from the president to armed
At a recent performance in Berkeley's Cedar Rose Park, the usual suspects --
hundreds of them, wearing sun hats, eating ice-cream, passing out political
flyers and treating toddlers to their first agitprop performance -- roared
at all the right places. Lines such as "that man almost lost a fixed election"
and "Maybe I shoulda gone AWOL, done some coke, watched out for myself. Maybe
then I'd be in the White House" were hits. At the end, the crowd stood up and
"It's refreshing to hear someone publicly criticizing the government because
there's this sense of paranoia in the country, this lockstep patriotism. It's
important that people can still hear dissent without fear of retribution,"
said audience member Chris Kroll, lingering after the show. "I think for
people in Berkeley, people like myself who are demoralized, it's solidarity.
Hearing what we think is the truth. It's important in this day and age when
things are so bleak for people who are not right-wing Republicans, that we
come together and have solidarity."
It's a good time for political satire onstage in this country, said Joel
Schechter, a professor of theater arts at San Francisco State. "Some of the
best satire written has been in response to violence and disturbing upheavals,
especially during the Vietnam War."
He pointed to the Stanford Summer Theater's production of Aristophanes' 2,500-
year-old anti-war play "Lysistrata," "Urinetown" at the American Conservatory
Theater and improvisational comedy, as well as the shows by the San Francisco
Mime Troupe, which he described as "one of the best in the country for
creating this kind of theater." In addition, the use of puppetry and humor at
recent anti-war protests is a certain kind of theatrical satire, he said.
On television, there's "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" and even "Saturday
Night Live," said Shannon Steen, a professor of theater dance and performance
studies at UC Berkeley. Contributors to those shows often have theatrical
backgrounds, Steen said.
"Things that we think of as political satire have a precedent in theater,"
she said. "It's the way in which satirical tradition in theater is being kept
alive on a more mass-media scale."
An eager audience is out there, say members of the S.F. Mime Troupe, who have
seen crowd size grow in recent years. "There's a hunger for another voice.
People going, 'Oh man, this sucks. This administration sucks big time, who's
saying something against it?' " said Ed Holmes of Berkeley, who's been in the
company for 17 years.
At the troupe's biggest shows, thousands show up and put as much as $15,000
into the contribution buckets. The company's $750,000 annual budget, which
funds productions as well as its youth theater program, comes from foundations,
government grants, individual donations and ticket, T-shirt and other sales.
Of course, there's a preaching-to-the-choir element at the free outdoor
performances in Berkeley, San Francisco and Oakland. But the troupe always
takes the show outside its simpatico hometowns -- last week, for example, it
made a trip to Palo Alto, where it hasn't played in years.
"During the boom, we couldn't get booked in Silicon Valley anymore," Sullivan
said. The prevailing attitude seemed to be, " 'Please don't say anything to
question this extreme wealth.' Then the bubble burst and suddenly people in
Palo Alto were saying, 'Hey, can you come down and remind us about why this
whole capitalist thing is questionable?' "
This fall, the troupe also will travel to Fresno, Claremont, Chico, Suisun
City and several towns in Oregon. Members are curious to see how the show will
go over on the road this year, but if history is a guide, warm receptions
Occasionally, the show upsets unsuspecting viewers who, due to the name, are
expecting "people in tights trapped in imaginary boxes," Brown said. "But
generally when we're traveling, people are really appreciative that these
things are being discussed because often no one is doing anything remotely
like what we're doing in their area."
Even conservatives have been known to giggle along, said Sullivan, recalling
last year's performance in Indianapolis. The audience was largely Republican,
but they were Republicans who didn't approve of the current administration's
"adventurism overseas," he said. "They loved it."
Despite the apparent enthusiasm, however, the troupe's fall tour is shorter
than usual this year. The troupe blames the economy and widespread anxiety
about voicing opposition. "Even people who believe in our alternative message
are afraid to bring us," Holmes said. "How are we going to be able to continue
what we're doing in the face of declining arts budgets and an increase of
Fellow collective member Brown had an answer to that question.
"I think the future of the company is always a question," she said. When
founder R.G. Davis left in 1970 and the troupe became a collective, people
predicted its death. When the NEA ensemble grants stopped rolling in more than
a decade ago, the end was supposedly nigh. Then when longtime playwright Joan
Holden retired in 2000, people didn't think the troupe would make it. But time
after time, the company took the blow and landed on its feet.
"There's always a good reason why we shouldn't make it another step," Brown
said. "Fortunately, there continue to be a few people who just keep trudging."