Anything but silent 

SF Mime Troupe brings City for Sale to town

Forget about whitewashed performers in striped jumpsuits pulling imaginary dogs on a lead or getting trapped in invisible boxes. The San Francisco Mime Troupe is a total theater experience, presenting social commentary in the guise of musical satire. Over the past decades they've tackled everything from civil rights, the Vietnam War and political posturing by utilizing a blend of story, song and cutting-edge comedy.

For the first time in 13 years, the Troupe is back in Atlanta, this time presenting their newest musical, City for Sale. In keeping with their own community activism, the show takes on greedy politicians, developers and the nouveau riche, pitting them against small-business owners, families and artists. It promises to be an interesting evening.

"This is the disenfranchised going against political power with wit and humor," says Alice Lovelace, executive director of Alternate ROOTS, a regional arts service organization responsible for bringing the group to Atlanta. "They do it better than anyone else -- they're simply the best in the community arts movement, exemplifying how the arts can make a social change. They do highly professional work with a social conscience."

Social conscience has kept the Troupe going for 41 years, along with a lot of perseverance, according to company member and co-director Ellen Callas. "I think we've been successful because our mission is so important to each one of us personally. The marriage of politics and art is what keeps us here. We try to make our audiences think about issues, using theater as a tool. And people identify with us, so it's entertainment but it's also relevant."

The Troupe runs itself as a collective membership, with total participation by all the performers. "One of the secrets to our success is that we don't compartmentalize," says Callas. "This week I'm a manager. And our actors can also design costumes and draw posters." Management decisions are made by everyone as well. "It's wonderful, but horrific at the same time. We get 11 different opinions -- but it has kept us alive."

A recurring topic up for deliberation concerns changing -- or at least clarifying -- their name. "We spend a lot of time trying to inform people that we're not what our name implies," explains Callas. "People tend to think of pantomime. But we use mime in the classic sense, utilizing dialogue, story, song and musical satire. It's the oldest performing style of popular theater in the world. Every two or three years we say, let's change the name. But people have always known us by this one, and we've established a reputation by now."

That reputation has earned them the highest accolade in the theater world: a Tony Award for Excellence in Regional Theatre. "I came to the phone and thought it was a joke, because we'd had a pretty rough week, trying to pay for things. The caller said, 'We want to let you know that you have won the Antoinette Perry Award' and I simply didn't believe it."

In City for Sale, the San Francisco Mime Troupe continues to uphold its take-no-prisoners approach -- with the added finesse of humor.

"The humor puts the audience's guard down," admits Callas. "But it's theater with a one-two punch."

The San Francisco Mime Troupe performs at 7 Stages Theater, 1105 Euclid Ave., Nov. 10-11 at 8 p.m. $20. 404-577-1079. www.sfmt.org.

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