Theater review: Scenes from the class struggle in San Francisco
By: Sam Hurwitt
July 16, 2014
The San Francisco Mime Troupe has political satire down to a science. The 55-year-old collective has unveiled a new agitprop musical comedy to tour local parks every summer for decades, tackling whatever issue the group decides is the hot topic for that year, and SFMT's new show is no exception. "Ripple Effect" takes on the growing class divide in San Francisco, with longtime residents being evicted so that richer tech workers can move in.
Jeanine Adenauer (Lisa Hori-Garcia) is one of those newly arrived digerati, an easily overwhelmed introvert who just wants to retreat to the comfort of her cubicle. (She also constantly quotes the rhyming business aphorisms of her boss, the chief executive officer of Octopus Tech.) But she manages to get roped into a tour boat cruise around the bay with a woman she's just met, Sunny Nguyen (Keiko Shimosato Carreiro), a beauty shop owner from Vietnam who's really, really happy to be an American, and wears a star-spangled flag suit. Their boat captain, Deborah (pronounced De-BORE-ah and played by Velina Brown), is an old 1970s radical activist turned super paranoid, hiding out from The Man, whom she's sure is out to get her. Sarah Edkins' set is one of the better ones in recent years: a boat on choppy waters in front of an askew San Francisco skyline, all in black and white.
And of course these three women are connected in all sorts of ways they couldn't have imagined. Jeanine designed the app that Sunny uses to spy on her teenage daughter's cellphone, and they're all tied to the same overpriced piece of Bayview property. Are they on different sides of the class war in San Francisco, or is that just what the system wants them to think to keep these workers from uniting?
Written by Michael Gene Sullivan, Eugenie Chan and Tanya Shaffer, "Ripple Effect" is ultimately a simple, straightforward story, but that's part of its charm. The three women get thrown together by a convenient plot device, and each of their back stories are played out in different performance styles appropriate to the setting. We hear about Sunny's family fleeing horrific conditions in Vietnam only to struggle to establish a foothold in the land of opportunity (reenacted with puppets designed by Carreiro). We see Jeanine create her scary-seeming surveillance invention to keep tabs on her dotty grandmother (Carreiro), in the style of an old-timey melodrama. And we witness how as an apolitical college student in the 1970s, Deborah (then pronounced the usual way) was radicalized by a speechifying and self-important but charismatic self-styled revolutionary, Marius (pronounced Mare-EYE-us and played by Sullivan), who later disappeared suddenly.
Mime Troupe shows can be formulaic, so it's pretty easy to see the plot twists coming a mile away even if you're not looking for them. As soon as one particularly compelling character is first mentioned in the play, let alone actually seen, it's immediately obvious what shocking news about that character we'll learn at the end. Everyone gets radicalized, the workers of the world unite, and we all learn that the middle class is just an invention to pit workers against each other. And in the meantime there are some pretty catchy songs in a variety of styles by Ira Marlowe, delivered by a versatile three-piece band.
The recipe may be comfortingly familiar, but the way it's put together is awfully enjoyable. The four-person cast of longtime Troupe members each plays several parts, giving costume designer Heidi Leigh Hanson a whole lot to work with. (Sullivan's octopus mascot and heroic mail carrier are particularly funny.) The staging by Wilma Bonet and Hugo E. Carbajal is lively and funny, juggling the many working parts well, although the pacing was off in the Fourth of July opening performance, with some seemingly forgotten lines and missed cues.
There's a lot packed into this satire of modern San Francisco, from fancy food trucks to surveillance culture and overreliance on smartphones. But most of all, it drives home the point that to accept the status quo is as much a political stance as to fight against it. As Deborah says, "There is no such thing as not political."