Mime Troupe's 'Schooled' asks who gets to say what our schools teach
By: Sam Hurwitt
July 6, 2016
Velina Brown (Lavina Jones, left), Rotimi Agbabiaka (Thomas Jones) and Keiko Shimosato Carreiro (Edith Orocuru) perform in "Schooled."Photo: DavidAllenStudio.com
Like clockwork, every Fourth of July weekend the San Francisco Mime Troupe unveils a new musical comedy political satire that plays for free in Bay Area parks for the rest of the summer. As the collective puts it, this is its “57th year of fighting oppression, one play at a time.” The main question is what’s going to be the hot issue that the troupe takes on in any given year. The current show by Michael Gene Sullivan and Eugenie Chan, “Schooled,” seems like one kind of show masquerading as another.
The initial topic is the dangerous influence of private enterprise in public education in the name of “efficiency.” Eleanor Roosevelt High School is falling apart, with restroom flooding that has already taken the library and gym out of action. In lieu of investing more directly into the schools, the president of the school board (a smoothly glad-handing Rotimi Agbabiaka) announces a partnership with a private corporation to increase efficiency in schools by, among other things, replacing textbooks and teachers with proprietary tablets that contain whatever curriculum the corporation deems appropriate.
Lisa Hori-Garcia amusingly portrays the nerdy chief executive officer Fredersen J. Babbit, who seems so tuned into his own technology that he’s a bit robotic himself. But is there something sinister lurking beneath his placid exterior? Oh, you can bet there is.
It’s up to one scrappy, elderly teacher (a crotchety Keiko Shimosato Carreiro), tasked with handling everything from history to basketball, to fight these changes as best she can in order to keep teaching her students how to be good citizens. Also skeptical of the arrangement is Mrs. Jones (forceful Velina Brown), the constantly meddling mother of one of the students, though her main objection to the deal seems to be that she wasn’t in charge of it.
The deft cast of four all plays multiple parts. Carreiro is Babbit’s vampy Russian henchwoman, Hori-Garcia is the zealous student body president, Brown is a chirphy cheerleader who blithely parrots the right-wing rhetoric her dad says, and Agbabiaka is Mrs. Jones’ underachieving (or not overachieving enough) son who spends all his time playing video games.
Director Sullivan keeps the pace tight—the show’s just under 90 minutes—with smooth scene changes on Jay Lasnik’s cleverly compact set with a rotating center. Ira Marlowe’s songs are upbeat but forgettable, although the gradual darkening of the saccharine school anthem is a particularly clever touch. (That said, who knew any American public schools even had their own anthems?)
This storyline contains some bits of sharp satire, teaching the important lesson that when you put voracious corporate interests in charge of education, what they teach is only whatever most benefits voracious corporate interests, illustrated in the school’s speedy transformation into a kind of totalitarian training camp.
At the same time, the play morphs into a parody of the 2016 presidential election that already feels a little stale. One candidate is an abrasive but otherwise perfect leftist who’s passionate about government by the people, for the people. One is a crass blowhard who’s only going into politics to push through policies that will make himself even richer. And another is a doggedly ambitious woman, still smarting from a lost election seven years ago, who wants to serve both the people and big corporations and just asks that we elect her now and hope she makes the right choice between those competing constituencies afterward. All three are characters we’ve already met in the play, so it’s a little disappointing when they wind up reduced to political caricatures straight off of your Bernie-or-bust friend’s Facebook page.
That said, Hori-Garcia’s gleefully boorish Donald Trump impression alone is worth the price of admission — or would be if there was an admission fee. And there’s plenty of other funny stuff in the show, such as a running gag about kids acting like malfunctioning robots whenever their phones aren’t in their hands. On the whole, “Schooled” is sharpest when it’s focused on how and what American children are learning, and loses some of its bite when nursing months-old political grudges
Sam Hurwitt’s theater blog, The Idiolect, is at www.theidiolect.com. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter at http://twitter.com/shurwitt.