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STAGE REVIEW : San Francisco Mime Troupe Still Relies on Satire in Latest 'Caper'

December 11, 1987|RAY LOYND

The San Francisco Mime Troupe, a Tony-laureled theater collective that long ago gave up mime in favor of highly vocal political comedy, is showing some of the wear of its 28-year history.

The 13-member touring troupe blew into Caltech's Beckman Auditorium last weekend for a single performance of its South African-inspired spy/thriller, "The Mozamgola Caper." The production is exuberant, richly musical and flavorfully visual. But the broad strokes--the Afrikaner and CIA dupes mugging beyond repair--fly in the face of effective satire.

An appreciative audience appeared to love the message that the United States is consciously pushing the Third World into debt. As a White House adviser, in a wonderfully droll performance by Ed Holmes, cynically cracked: "Self determination is just a way of saying Socialism . . . . It takes the White House to turn rapists and pillagers into freedom fighters."

The Mime Troupe, which began silent in 1959 and then gradually replaced strict Commedia del'Arte with original music and a variety of theatrical forms to better wake up its audiences, won a special Tony this year for excellence in regional theater. The troupe has performed in East Berlin and Cuba and will take "The Mozamgola Caper" to the East Coast and Europe next spring. The troupe's carefully crafted theatricality is still winning, but its street style is beginning to expose cracks that make the work appear somewhat dated.

In the current production, in not-entirely fictitious African nations, a key U.S.-anointed freedom fighter (Jesse Moore) is so excessively wide-eyed, the acting style destroys the intended message. The central figure, a black female CIA operative wrenched from boozy retirement in Harlem, is played with verve by Audrey Smith. But she also is anchored to the gargoyle mode of melodrama.

The writers (Joan Holden, John O'Neal and Robert Alexander) feel compelled at the end to kill off the heroine to set up the sincerely delivered message from the beleaguered Mozamgola Marxist leader (nicely played by Anthony Haney). But by this time the creases on behalf of agitprop theater have begun to wrinkle the message.

Director Dan Chumley has staged a show that is frequently funny, but he has not honed the production's variegated styles into an ensemble that really nails its target. Political satire of the '60s and '70s doesn't do it anymore. The San Francisco Mime Troupe has been committed to change all its history. Now it needs to evolve even more.

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