I’ve often thought that the easiest way of checking out the state of the American left is to go see the latest production of the San Francisco Mime Troupe. Last Saturday I caught the Troupe’s new show, “Veronique of the Mounties,” at Cedar-Rose Park. What this summer’s offering suggests, I’m sorry to say, is that these days the left and Mime Troupe alike are just going through the motions.
To be sure, the Mime Troupe just going through the motions still affords considerable pleasure. Veronique serves up many of the company’s reliable crowd-pleasers: fine acting, cunning sight gags, eye-popping costumes, well-crafted songs and sets as wacky they are versatile. Most important, Veronique administers an ample dose of the Troupe’s signature razor-edged wit: a stream of zingy one-liners kept the crowd laughing.
I laughed a lot, too, but by the end of the play I was too distressed to smile. For the Mime Troupe I cherish does far more than amuse; it also probes its audience’s most deeply held assumptions. Abandoning the smug pieties of standard issue agit-prop, it challenges us with riveting political theater peopled by complex characters who embody profound contradictions.
Take the Willie Brown figure in the Troupe’s 1999 play, “City for Sale.” It would have been easy to portray Brown as a jerk pure and simple. Instead he, or more precisely, his female surrogate, is a (momentarily) rueful sell-out who confesses that “I wanted to be the people’s mayor, but then the party began.” Likewise, that same play’s representative yuppie comes across not merely as a self-absorbed agent of gentrifying consumerism, but also as a decent but naive young woman who’s never considered the full implications of her desire to own a loft in the Mission.
Not that the Mime Troupe indulges in cop-out, post-modernist ambiguity. It’s clear that for all their complexities, some of the individuals in its imagined worlds are on the side of the angels, and others, such as Willie Brown, aren’t. What makes the Mime Troupe at its best worth our attention is that those characters who are on the side of the angels get the same treatment as those who’re not. In “City for Sale,” one of the most sympathetic figures, an aging hippy musician threatened with displacement by a heartless young developer, turns out to be that developer’s deadbeat dad.
Not one of the characters in “Veronique of the Mounties” exhibits depth or interest comparable to “City for Sale’s” memorable creations. Here everyone is either a saint (the brave and selfless heroine, her intrepid and resourceful librarian-cum-bartender sidekick, the hapless Vietnam vet) or a sinner (Dick Cheney, Condaleeza Rice, authoritarian Homeland Security Forces, craven representatives of the media and Bible-thumping, gun-toting Christian fundamentalists).
Veronique opens as the United States is “liberating” Canada in “Operation Frozen Freedom.” Fascism has come out of the closet: anyone who questions the Bush administration’s policies is sent off to “the camps.” Assigned to a secret mission in the United States, Canadian Mounty Veronique, we are told, has only one weakness: a hatred of America so visceral it repeatedly causes her to blow her cover. But since her animosity is directed at qualities the Mime Troupe’s audience also likely deplores—American militarism, consumerism, imperialism and other too-familiar iniquities—it doesn’t really count as a fault. A protagonist who simply mirrors her viewers’ proclivities is incapable of instructing them. For a company that specializes in didactic theater, that’s a problem.
For a company like the Mime Troupe, which specializes in didactic political theater, Veronique has another problem: a dearth of real politics. The cast of characters includes only one activist, and she’s operating underground. Even more troubling, what ultimately saves the day is magic. I don’t want to give away too much; suffice to say that a tale in which the survival of freedom and democracy depends on a talisman is a tale born of political despair. It’s also a tale that cannot openly acknowledge the bleakness of its vision. If despair is where the Mime Troupe is at, then it ought to say so. Better a terrifying vision that might shake us into serious political action than a sentimental whitewash of impending disaster.
Mime Troupe productions famously evolve over time. Let’s hope that Veronique morphs into a play that, in the spirit of the Troupe’s brilliant best, invites its most loyal fans to confront their own foibles and re-think their unconsidered pieties. At this moment, when we’re facing real, impending disasters, political and otherwise, we need a left that can face the music and, better yet, come up with some new and surprising tunes.
Zelda Bronstein is a Berkeley writer whose work has appeared in Dissent, Film Quarterly and other publications.