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Theater review: Mime Troupe bites the ballot
Robert Hurwitt, Chronicle Theater Critic
July 08, 2008

clapping, sitting man Red State: Musical political comedy. By Michael Gene Sullivan. Music and lyrics by Pat Moran. Directed by Sullivan. With Velina Brown, Robert Ernst, Lisa Hori-Garcia, Noah James Butler, Lizzie Calogero and Adrian Mejia.

It's election day 2008, and Fox News is beginning its "Countdown to Armageddon" with a "last glorious days of the Bush presidency" report. PBS is running "The Antiques Road Show Election Day Special." CNN has a "Special Report: Anna Nicole Smith: Who would she have voted for?" But in tiny, hard-luck Bluebird, Kan., it's 6 p.m. and the voting machine is busted.

A presidential election during a national economic meltdown, vanishing social programs, government corruption and vote-fixing should be natural grist for the satirical mill of the San Francisco Mime Troupe. Not surprisingly, hundreds of local residents descended on Dolores Park on Friday for the traditional Independence Day opening of the Mime Troupe's free summer show in the parks.

"Red State," the new musical by troupe head writer Michael Gene Sullivan and composer-lyricist Pat Moran, does not disappoint. The script is timely, funny, far-fetched and packed with sharp political barbs. Moran's tuneful country-folk-and-blues songs encapsulate the plight of the downsized, outsourced and safety-net-deprived working poor. Sullivan's stagings are generally sharp, and the six-person cast ably depicts a townful of characters plus reporters and politicians in remarkably quick changes of Keiko Shimosato's costumes.

The story concerns yet another problematic election, hanging not on chads but on the delayed returns from Bluebird, Kan.'s decisive electoral votes can't be awarded until the town's tie-breaking ballots are counted. But no one's been able to vote because of the malfunctioning machine and everyone's too busy trying to survive in the wake of lost farms and homes, the closed schools, hospital and library and the decision of the last large employer ( Lizzie Calogero) to move her pencil factory to non-union Uzbekistan.

No actual candidates are employed. The only presidents mentioned are the current one and Franklin Roosevelt, touchstones for the thematic battle between New Deal public investment and rampant corporate welfare. It helps that the opposed ideas are embodied by local treasures Velina Brown and Robert Ernst.

Brown, as the newly unemployed librarian with a strong sense of the value and justice of public works programs, kicks the show into high gear with a gospel-infused, bluesy "Leaving Town." Brown also plays a selfishly amoral federal elections official. Ernst, who supplements Moran's three-piece band with some fine harmonica riffs, is terrific as the tongue-tied factory worker whose love for Brown is stymied by his fervent hatred of "government handouts."

Other conservative shibboleths and economic casualties, as well as media sensationalism, are sharply portrayed by the cast, with Lisa Hori-Garcia as a struggling single mom, Adrian Mejia as a returning soldier, Noah James Butler as the mayor and a misguided fundamentalist and Calogero as a computer nerd in a comic-sultry tango with the voting machine. Conrad Cimarra's WPA mural-like set is almost another quick-change artist, particularly in a dynamically staged tornado.

Sullivan could tighten some of the pacing, enhance some characters and highlight a few political points better. But "Red" does a good job of reclaiming the color for the left and should make a contribution to the Democratic convention when the troupe brings it to Denver in August.

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