Situation Satire

For 33 summers now the Bay Area has been blessed with free performances from the innovative, irreverent, and supremely talented San Francisco Mime Troupe. This year's offering, Coast City Confidential (expertly directed by Michael Gene Sullivan), is smart, sassy, and funny in the Mime Troupe's relentlessly political tradition. That the show manages to balance unapologetically leftist views — it reads like a commercial for the proposed tax hike on businesses — with sheer entertainment is no small feat.

Of course, this year's offering struck a particularly resonant chord with yours truly, as its plot centers on a fictitious city “where a small weekly alternative newspaper is sold to an out-of-town chain.” Hmm!

The paper is The Coast City Courier, and its new editor — dubbed “the Tina Brown of alternative weeklies” — is Earthangel Glass (Rebecca Jane Klingler), an espresso-chugging, wisecracking upstart in a miniskirt. Earthangel has succumbed to '90s cynicism and diagnosed Coast City as “a highly evolved consciousness that knows the revolution has failed, so let's party.” She has shifted the paper's focus from gritty hard-news articles on such corporate demons as PG&E to food features and “shopping news.” The new emphasis is selling advertising at a great rate, and everyone's happy. Everyone, that is, except Earthangel's long-lost alcoholic aunt.

Aunt Millie (the brilliant Sharon Lockwood), a one-time reporter in the Rosalind Russell “Front Page” tradition, lurches out to berate her niece for missing out on the biggest story of the year: Bubble-headed Supervisor Peony Chan (Keiko Shimosato) is about to declare her candidacy for mayor. Backed by the deliciously villainous political consultant Chanel Grimes (Velina Brown), Chan is inadvertently seduced by big, bad business-types. Community activists, led by the saintly Eula Heartwell (Velina Brown again) and earnest Vergil Mountebouger (Conrad Cimarra), press Earthangel to expose the truth.

Will the tax hike pass? Will the evil big-business money-grubbers be forced to contribute to community programs? Guess.

What makes Coast City such a success is the Mime Troupe's mastery of the traveling show. The sets (Daniel Chumley and Harvey Varga) are painted flats that change like Venetian blinds with the flick of a wrist. Music (composed by Bruce Barthol and Elliot Humberto Kavee) also plays a big part, and soulful rock belts out the message from time to time. This is basic comedy where the plot line needs to stay simple without being simplistic, the comic characters drawn broadly without surrendering to stereotype.

The already mentioned Lockwood is splendid as Aunt Millie. She lights her cigarettes with shaky hands and then growls out her lines in a fierce deadpan that evokes the young Bette Davis. Her economic and selectively placed comic takes are a marvel of clowning.

As the whiz-kid editor, Earthangel, Klingler is bright and irreverent — she reminds me of the blond Madonna, sexy and snarling. And when she downs her double espresso, you can literally see the caffeine take hold. Conrad Cimarra does standout double duty as James, Earthangel's gay secretary, and Vergil, the self-described citizen activist. This is a mature company whose skills seem to improve every year. It's a delightful way to spend a weekend afternoon.

Kell O'Donnell gets quite a workout in Making Up, Making Over and Making Do, three one-act plays she wrote and is acting in, along with Lee Ann Manley. She did relinquish directorial duties to Andrea Gordon — wisely — but this is the world according to O'Donnell. That it's one we've seen all too often makes it a predictable evening but, happily enough, a painlessly pleasant one.

Each of the plays involves women at various stages of loneliness and desperation, from an elderly mother and her middle-aged daughter to street people to a would-be Tupperware hostess and an exotic dancer. O'Donnell gives us generic characters who are codified rather than explored and realized, which is the show's big weakness.

In the first play, we get an old woman in a nursing home who's addicted to talk shows and has a daughter who insists on quoting Reader's Digest. Alice, the mother (O'Donnell), is cranky and cantankerous (read: spirited), while her daughter, Jackie (Manley), struggles yet again to earn her approval. Jackie's brought a gift: a much-desired and difficult-to-find life-size Phil Donahue doll, but he's minus a foot, which shows up later to great comic effect.

The jokes are funny, but the pathos is stated and then restated in dialogue that sounds more like a playwright's scribblings than the conversation of real people. Naturally, Alice can only confide in “Phil,” requiring Jackie to eavesdrop so that the “making up” of the title can happen.

The second play gives us generic street misfits who are funny but who fail to locate their own distinct humanities, so the proceedings never rise above the level of slapstick.

The third, in which Manley plays Lanny, a frustrated artist and would-be Tupperware lady, is the most ambitious. The only “guest” who shows up for her party is exotic dancer Tina (O'Donnell), who persuades Lanny that she has potential and her paintings have value. Tina is a mysterious presence, but even if the idea weren't a clichŽ, it's insufficiently developed.

Everything in Making Up seems to come from somewhere else. The first play, for instance, could have been inspired by the Eunice and Mama segments on The Carol Burnett Show. The loser who can't even sell Tupperware is generic, as are street crazies with mystical spiritual connections. As a writer, O'Donnell is focusing on the resolution she wants rather than observing the wonderfully comic and creative ways people have of engaging in (and avoiding) conflict. So instead of three one-act plays, we have three simplistic sketches.

As an actor, O'Donnell has the same problem: She has made up her mind about these characters and will brook no arguments from them. She has genuine gifts as a comedian, however, and brings down the house more than once.

In her various roles, Manley tries valiantly to flesh out what are essentially one-dimensional characters. She manages to avoid the trap of functioning as mere foil to O'Donnell's more eccentric types, but she's hampered by the tired characters as written in the script.

For all its glaring weaknesses, Making Up exhibits a forthright good will that is hard to resist. I'd like to see these collaborators dig deeper and come up with the real goods.

Coast City Confidential plays Aug. 5 & 6 at 2 p.m. in Francis Willard Park in Berkeley; call 285-1717. Making Up, Making Over and Making Do runs through Aug. 20 at the Climate Theatre in S.F.; call 978-2345.

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