Grim Business

With Doing Good, the San Francisco Mime Troupe does poorly.

With Doing Good, the story of two young idealists who get sucked into the globalization machine, the San Francisco Mime Troupe has lost heart.

The story opens in 1968 on the eve of the Tet Offensive, and just as that led the American public to start questioning the war in Vietnam, here the Mime Troupe hopes to get us to question the global relationships between governments, corporations, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. Which is admirable, and a welcome change from the Bushiad that has dominated the past four years of Mime Troupe shows. But this show fails to strike the troupe’s usual balance between whimsy and world-changing, and instead replaces Bushiad with jeremiad.

Idealistic James doesn’t want to fight in ‘Nam, so he and his wife Molly join the Peace Corps and set out to do some good. An opportunity in Ecuador gets him on board at Gaincorp, and the two begin zigzagging from Ecuador to Indonesia to Panama to Iran. James gets more and more skilled at selling local governments on big-loan projects, and Molly doggedly works for women’s causes. We watch in horror as the intelligent, well-meaning James embraces the Dark Side (“Sometimes you have to enhance the numbers”), and the marriage falls apart to the strains of a multinational chorus of anti-American protesters. Despite everyone’s best efforts to save him, James gets his comeuppance in Afghanistan, and the relentlessly grim and angry show grinds to a close as the cast sings that We the comfortable don’t care to be afflicted.

While it may sound like previous Mime Troupe shows, there’s a lot that’s distressingly different about this one. For one thing, it’s just not fun. While many of the lines are funny, the overarching humor for which the troupe is known is painfully absent as it tries for something closer to straight drama. So too is the goofy physicality; other than a hair-raising scooter ride nicely played by Lisa Hori-Garcia and Christian Cagigal and a spot of Indonesian dancing, there’s nothing memorable in the blocking. Left in their place are a group of characters lashing out in frustration at American imperialism.

While this frustration was also there in years past, there also was always some grace note, some sense that change was possible. Now it feels as if the troupe has given up. By killing off a major character and then having the last piece of action be an argument, the troupe suggests that hope is futile. And it’s not just our government that’s responsible, it’s every one of us.

Yes, we get that message every year. But rarely is it played out so baldly as in the four Brecht/Weill-ish songs, which are uncharacteristically set apart from the action of the play. Two of them rely on the line The comfortable don’t care to be afflicted, and another isn’t just aggressive, it’s in bad taste. It’s hard enough hearing Michael Gene Sullivan curve his rich baritone around someone singing of America, I want to see your flag burning, not waving. Is it really necessary to add Your towers will come crashing down?

The audience on the Fourth of July, usually a jovial and enthusiastic bunch, got that. A sense of puzzlement and discomfort was evident throughout the performance; this was the most subdued crowd at a Fourth of July show in five years. It’s hard to say whether that’s because the show was harshing people’s mellow or if it was just too much of a struggle following all the handwritten captions (“The fertile Spice Islands, now Indonesia, produced coffee, rubber, tobacco, indigo, and a large starving class under Dutch rule, 1620-1942” is one of the wordier examples).

But the audience clung to the light moments like people drowning. In the Ecuador segment set in 1971, Molly tries to raise feminist consciousness by ordering copies of Our Bodies, Ourselves for the women of the village where she and James have been posted by the Peace Corps. “It shows us how to love our bodies,” Molly enthuses to small-landowner Lucia. “Look, your uterus, your ovaries — your vagina!” at which Lucia nearly faints. It’s a good bit. There’s also a little welcome spectacle in the middle in which our heroes catch a street performance. It’s really exciting, with Indonesian dance choreographed by the Balinese artist and performer I Made Moja and the brightest costuming of the whole show.

But otherwise, the show is a train wreck. It’s mysterious how this happened. The collective brought in outside help on the writing, including the very funny ex-critic and current playwright Erin Blackwell. The casting is strong. The music is good. The decision to go for more realism and history is gutsy. But it doesn’t hold together.

Maybe they got too close to their source material, John Perkins’ Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, an awkwardly written spy thriller of a memoir of Perkins’ decade with Boston-based consultantancy Chas. T. Main. According to Perkins, his job as Main’s chief economist was to make construction deals with local governments based on World Bank loans that they could never repay without becoming beholden to US interests. Namely, the CIA, whom he says were called “jackals” around the office. James is patterned fairly closely after Perkins.

But Perkins got religion, literally, after he left Main in 1981. He chatted with Jesus and founded nonprofit organizations dedicated to helping indigenous people protect their cultures and environments. In other words, not only did he join the choir, he has a deathgrip on the baton. Which would have been a wonderful thing to include somehow in Doing Good.

Confessions has stirred up a lot of controversy. Detractors suggest that Perkins is spinning out a conspiracy theory without numbers or facts to back it up, leading one reviewer on Amazon to title his review “Important topic hijacked by looney [sic] man.” Supporters reply that resisting the truth of what Perkins is saying is the conspiracy’s way of defending itself. Just reading the nearly two hundred user reviews on Amazon is a full afternoon’s entertainment.

The Mime Troupe takes a serious stab at clarifying what is clearly a complex and acrimonious issue. But the source material is so suspect, and the writing so grim, that it seems the Troupe is sliding into paranoia. Hopefully next July it’ll get its groove back.

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