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Campaign pain?
SF Mime Troupe takes no election-year guff in Red State
Robert Avila
July 15, 2008

pre publicity photo November's presidential election already looms on the horizon like a herpes outbreak, promising nothing so much as a painful, shame-filled denouement to a drunken and ill-conceived flirtation with someone you thought you knew. So it's refreshing that the San Francisco Mime Troupe's seasonal offering of free, rabble-rousing political theater is an election-year special in which the opposing candidates from the two monopolizing parties are conspicuously absent. Instead, Red State, which opened by tradition July 4 in Dolores Park, focuses on the screwed-if-you-do/screwed-if-you-don't quandary of voting itself, and does so with populist gusto tinged with a reddish hue — a thematic color imbuing everything from the design scheme to the pointedly funny dialogue's New Deal–style social-democratic slant. It also reflects the rising blood pressure that results from underlying but palpable frustration and outrage.

Reclaiming red from the dusty color wheel of history, Mime Troupe head writer Michael Gene Sullivan's smart and consistently funny script — brilliantly delivered by a uniformly sharp and charismatic cast and fueled by composer–band leader Pat Moran's eclectic set of apt and catchy songs — posits FDR's small-town America as marooned at Francis Fukuyama's end of history. Set in a puny Kansas 'burb named Bluebird, Red State casts November's "Countdown to Armageddon" (as the play's CNN reporter colorfully advertises his network's election coverage) in the screwball style of Depression-era comedies as Bluebird becomes the unlikely tiebreaker in an electoral dead heat.

Suddenly the nation's eyes are riveted on an otherwise microscopic microcosm of average American life at the beginning of the 21st century. This focus on the lives of the town's humble and much abused citizens throws everyone for a loop, not least the government's smarmy and ambitious election official (Velina Brown), who is so obsessed with thoughts of a cush Washington, DC-based promotion that she has difficulty remembering which state she's even in.

For its part, Bluebird feels like a town under siege, but just who the enemy is remains initially hard for the inhabitants to fathom, or agree on, anyway. Is it the wrath of God? The communists? It all depends on whom you ask among the locals, a population whose representative eccentrics include a God-fearing, Jesus-toting fundamentalist (Noah James Butler, bearing cross and life-size Christ) and a rabid (and equally anachronistic) anticommunist named Eugene (Robert Ernst).

What is clear enough is that jobs have dried up (the local pencil factory — the onetime pride of the town, which liked to promote itself as "the Number 2 pencil capital of North Central Kansas" — just relocated to the cheap labor environs of Uzbekistan), public services have dwindled to nil, and the dilapidated sidewalks and roads are a physical menace (nearly undoing a local soldier, played by Adrian C. Mejia, who's just returned in one piece from Afghanistan).

If that wasn't enough, the town's only electronic voting machine is on the fritz. But this little debacle, in the context of an electoral tie, ends up being an opportunity that gets the town thinking and the earth trembling beneath Washington, DC. Deciding to withhold their votes until the proper share of their tax dollars gets re-diverted back to their community where it belongs, and away from endless war-making and corporate welfare, Bluebird manages (in the most unlikely but coruscating of Capra-esque scenarios) to hold a corrupt and hubristic system at bay, spotlighting the government–big business alliance that for decades has fleeced towns like Bluebird of their taxes, able-bodied military-age youth, and everything else not nailed down.

Or so to speak: before the town turns the tables on the system, even Bluebird's fundamentalist is driven in desperation to ask the Antiques Roadshow host, "How much for Jeezus?"

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