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More Pointed Than Punchy 'City' Views The San Francisco Mime Troupe returns with a lofty tale of artists vs. trendoids battling for a perfect old (now fashionable) neighborhood.
Michael Phillips, Times Theater Critic
August 14, 1999

Artists and musicians inhabit loft space. Neighborhood becomes trendy. Developers drum artists out via rent hikes, so trendoids with dough can move into fabulous renovated live/work lofts no longer dominated by pesky artists. All this, and a $3.90 latte right down the block!

Such is the gentrification situation tackled by "City for Sale," the latest from the nation's best-known activist theater collective, the San Francisco Mime Troupe. Though short on comic seasoning, it's good to have the company back, and angry, through the weekend at the Los Angeles Theatre Center.

That's not far from various downtown warehouse live/work dwellings and their attendant potential for controversy. Downtown L.A. hasn't yet been overrun by the IYS (Invading Yuppie Scum), but if "City for Sale" serves an accurate forecast, they're coming.

The "gorgeous old building" up for grabs in "City for Sale" is a typewriter factory, and well-to-do computer geek Agnes (Stephanie Taylor) wants in, bad. She yearns for a Cool, Colorful Neighborhood, Near Bohemian Folk. Rapacious developer Ben (Amos Glick) sees Agnes as an emblem of a lucrative future.

The displaced, in this case, include the band members of Califa Triscuit--Daria (Velina Brown), Xavier (Victor Toman) and the constantly spliffed Junior (Bruce Barthol, who wrote the show's lyrics and co-wrote the music, with Jason Sherbundy). They take their cause to the mayor (Brown again, with hugely padded butt and bosom). She turns out to be an old flame of Junior's. The "No More Lofts!" platform appeals to the mayor's sense of . . . well, to her recent poll slippage, anyway.

But the mayor's support proves inconstant. "Politics, man. The whole thing's rigged," as one of the put-upon says. Co-written by Joan Holden and Kate Chumley, "City for Sale" lands on a note of rueful hope for the future, as Agnes develops a conscience and the soon-to-be-evicted vow to squat, until they're carried out. The show acknowledges the present-day apolitical winds, even as it depicts the symbolic value, at least, of not giving in quietly to a neighborhood's blandification.

Directed by Keiko Shimosato, "City for Sale" proffers some lovely cheap comic moments. My favorite is the image of the press (the arm of an otherwise unseen actor, waving a pair of microphones) clamoring outside the mayor's office. Glick, Taylor, Brown and Luis Oropeza (as a body-shop owner about to become homeless) bring a lot of performance savvy to the proceedings.

The show is, however, surprisingly sluggish in its rhythm, a considerable step down from the other Mime Troupe creations I've seen on tour in various cities. A few years back director Shimosato acted, beautifully, in the North American Free Trade Agreement-themed "Offshore," a dazzling blend of Asian-centric performance techniques. The style informed the content, every step of the way. There's far less fizz in "City for Sale"; a lot of it settles for a clip-clop pace. Never underestimate speed as a virtue in agit-prop.

For all that, though, also never underestimate the Mime Troupe's value. With a blunt object, "City for Sale" hits its target. The show takes time (too much, probably) for throwaway touches; it's democratic that way. Near the end, band vocalist Daria takes a gig with an alt-rock band. "It's been incredible working with you guys," she says--and then, with a glance to Xavier: "Especially since we went platonic."

Now 40 years old, the Mime Troupe knows firsthand what it's like to sustain a creative life through thick and thin, through various relationships, through larger cross-currents of apathy and outrage.

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