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"Coast City Confidential': from supes to nuts

Mime Troupe's fun, fast-paced musical plays S.F. politics for laughs

Monday, July 3, 1995

THE MAYOR is a former police chief in the pocket of downtown business interests, running for re-election on a clean-streets, tough-on-crime platform. Liberal supervisors are running against each other to replace him, splitting the left in a campaign orchestrated by a shadowy political consultant. There's a proposed tax on big businesses and stock transactions. A once-crusading weekly paper has been taken over by an out-of-town syndicate devoted to lifestyle coverage, with a trend-chasing editor who doesn't even know the way to City Hall.

The town is Coast City, but any resemblance to a city in the immediate vicinity is not at all coincidental. Yes, it's the beginning of July and the San Francisco Mime Troupe is back in the parks with a new musical comedy as topical, if not quite as convoluted, as the mayoral race playing out alongside it this summer.

"Coast City Confidential," subtitled "A Hard-Boiled Fable of Political Intrigue," opened Saturday in sun-drenched Dolores Park (where it plays again Tuesday), and runs in various Bay Area parks every weekend through Labor Day. Written by veteran SFMT playwright Joan Holden and longtime songwriters Bruce Barthol and Elliot Humberto Kavee, it's fast, funny, wonderfully tuneful, wickedly satiric and so San Francisco-specific you can't help but wonder how well it will play out of town - even in Berkeley and San Jose.

There's little doubt about how it plays in the story's thinly disguised hometown. Saturday's crowd of a few hundred was smaller than usual for a Mime Troupe opening day, but no less enthusiastic - despite occasional sequences that looked as if the show wasn't quite finished (director and co-designer Michael Gene Sullivan was still touching up the paint on the set an hour before the show started).

"Coast City" is far and away the most Frisco-centric piece the troupe has created since "Ripped Van Winkle" in 1988 or "Hotel Universe" 10 years before that.

"Ripped," however - the tale of a Haight-Ashbury hippie waking up 20 years after a heavy acid trip during the Summer of Love - was the story of an entire generation trying to reawaken its sense of social commitment.

"Universe," about the battle to save the International Hotel, dealt directly with the plight of displaced low-income tenants the world over.

The issues at stake in "Coast City" are no less universal: declining civic revenues; hard-pressed social services versus tax breaks for business. The problem of democratic elections subverted by high-paid consultants may prove to be one of the definitive issues of the decade. The story of the social awakening of a self-servingly cynical journalist is always good copy.

But so much of "Coast City" plays like a drama a clef that someone not fully familiar with S.F. politics - like a critic who lives across one of the bridges - might find himself wondering if he's missing a good deal of subtext. Say, the extent to which the machinations of the liberal supervisors and the political kingmaker are a commentary on the current mayoral race. Or, how much the play is really a rallying cry for Tom Ammiano's tax proposals, due to come up before the Board of Supervisors later this summer.

Just such a tax package is at the heart of "Coast City." It's the brainchild of Supervisors Peony Chan (Keiko Shimosato) and Colin O'Malley (Hillel Familant), both jockeying to run for mayor. But Chan, a left-leaning lesbian activist and shoot-from-the-lip airhead (an apparent composite reference to two mayoral candidates), is in the process of being remade in a more business-friendly image by all-purpose power-behind-the-throne Chanel Grimes (a super-slinky Velina Brown as urban American Dragon Lady).

The one person with the potential power to stop the sellout is Coast City Courier editor Earthangel Glass (Rebecca Jane Klingler), the navel-pierced, miniskirted, trashy-chic (great costumes by Callie Floor) "Tina Brown of alternative weeklies." Glass is so consumed with lifestyle issues ( "This piece on piercing needs pictures! Nipples are tired. Get me foreskin!" ), she doesn't even know a campaign is in process.

The battle for Glass' consciousness is the central action of the play. On one side are her Aunt Millie (Sharon Lockwood), a chainsmoking, hard-drinking ex-reporter with good sources, plus techno-nerd activist Vergil (Conrad Cimarra, whose cleverly manipulated briefcase becomes a delightful barometer of his emotions) and longtime community organizer Eula Heartwell (Brown). On the other, are the sleazy Grimes and the equally smooth banker Sam Bourbon (Ed Holmes).

The performances, as usual, are sharply etched and deftly executed, with most members of the ensemble appearing in multiple roles. Brown, in particular, is a knockout, oozing amoral opportunism as Grimes and wholesome common sense as Heartwell, and belting out a sinisterly bluesy

"Master of the Game." Lockwood is a deliciously hard-boiled news hound, Klingler a vibrantly driven and naively cynical go-getter, and Shimosato a delightfully ditzy, malleable politician. Holmes, Cimarra and Gregory Tate fill out a small city full of lesser, clever portraits.

Barthol and Kavee's urban-noir jazz score is catchy and beautifully rendered, especially by Eric Crystal's sweet sax. Except for a bit of aimless running around as the story reaches its climax, Sullivan's staging carries on the company's fast-paced, broadly stated, comically inventive traditions on an ingenious set (by Rick Villaroman and Spain Rodriguez) of panels that flip from scene to scene.

When the big supervisorial vote on the tax package finally rolls around, it's a bit hard to say what exactly is at stake. Where Holden and company clearly laid out such complex issues as international trade in "Offshore" two years ago, this time she relies too heavily on our knowledge of local politics to do some of the work for her. The result is still 70 minutes of solid and often very funny entertainment, but a bit less incisive and thought-provoking than the Mime Troupe's usual fare.

The San Francisco Mime Troupe performs "Coast City Confidential" Tuesday in Dolores Park, Saturday and Sunday in Berkeley's Cedar Rose Park, and in various Bay Area parks, Saturdays and Sundays through Sept. 4. All outdoor shows are free and start at 2 p.m. (415-285-1717).

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