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`City' For the Taking / Mime Troupe puts on its best show in years
Steven Winn, Chronicle Staff Critic
July 12, 1999

Sitting Clapping Man CITY FOR SALE: Agit-prop comedy. By Joan Holden and Kate Chumley. Performed by the San Francisco Mime Troupe. Directed by Keiko Shimosato. (Through September 19. At various Bay Area parks. Free.") Leave it to a political hack to hit the cynical nail on the head.

"What's easy to hate but doesn't look helpless?" the mayor's pollster asks in "City for Sale," the San Francisco Mime Troupe's free summer parks show.

The answer -- yuppies posing as artists to occupy hip warehouse lofts -- may not seem the stuff of rousing agit-prop theater for the millennium. But in its best effort of recent years, the Mime Troupe has come up with some canny and mordant takes on San Francisco's gleaming gentrification.

The show is a realpolitik snapshot of "Coast City" in the late 1990s. Money rules. Politicians spin. Urban life has morphed into an industrial-chic lifestyle.

But it's not a black-and-white world of oppressors and victims. The characters have checkered histories and internal conflicts. An artist is just as likely to sell out as a mayor -- Velina Brown plays both parts here, underscoring the point. The endearing hippie musician Junior (Bruce Barthol) has a drug habit. A rapacious developer (Amos Glick) gets a complicated back story.

Even the show's drag queen has a double life. Leather is a fetish for Latrice (Aaron Birk) and also the means of a thriving small business.

The open-air production, written by Joan Holden and Kate Chumley and directed by Keiko Shimosato, was still stuttering in its second weekend of a summerlong run around the Bay Area and the state. (I caught the Saturday afternoon performance at Berkeley's Cedar Rose Park.) The plot hatches slowly and never gets fully formed. The pacing and line delivery need attention.

But this 80-minute comedy with music makes you feel as well as think about the city's transformation. When Luis Oropeza launches into the corridos lament of "Ya Me Voy," he puts the voice of the city in the mouth of an evicted auto body shop owner: "The good times are over and done."

That same notion becomes a laugh line when the exasperated mayor asks rhetorically what year a group of protesters would like to return to? "1967," one answers without a shred of irony.

"City for Sale" does have a message to deliver. This is the Mime Troupe after all, still keeping the faith in its 40th year. No more phony loft conversions and sales, please; no more "stealth development."

But battle cries, as the show acknowledges, sound a lot different in 1999 than they did in the 1960s.

The show keeps a healthy sense of humor about itself and the nature of political change in a booming economy. In "Interlude," Glick gets the crowd on its feet to chant about consumer greed ("I need more") before sitting back for down for the second act of "candy-coated propaganda."

Oropeza's vigorous turns as the evicted Alonso and the mayor's quick-thinking gay pollster in a flowered vest are the flashpoints of the production. "The mayor never said, 'Blood-drinking speculators,' " his pollster says, always thinking a step ahead of a press corps.

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