On opening day at Dolores Park, during the San Francisco Mime Troupe’s latest political comedy with music, “For the Greater Good,” Troupe stalwart Velina Brown — playing a super-patriotic military officer — belted out a heartfelt song with all her usual gusto. As the audience cheered, a woman behind me said to her companion, “But we’re not supposed to like her!” He replied, “It’s so hard not to!”
That comment speaks to the excellent acting all around in the six-member cast. But it also speaks to a slight sense of disorientation: Who is the hero and who is the villain here?
In fact, there are none, exactly. Even though this show is based on an 1857 melodrama by Dion Boucicault, in which audiences were presumably encouraged to hiss and cheer — just as they’ve been encouraged to do at Mime Troupe shows for the past half-century — “For the Greater Good” is more complex than that.
This time around, Mime Troupe head writer-director Michael Gene Sullivan presents characters among whom even the good-hearted innocents, like Brown’s misguided Sergeant Lucy — and, ultimately, her homeless, widowed mother (Keiko Shimosato Carreiro), who lives in the last Occupy encampment — are convinced the movement promotes dreaded socialism and that only the rich are capable of ruling the country.
Consider the other principal characters, introduced by narrator Jack Badger (Victor Toman), who also participates in the action as a blackmailing corporate accountant: “hardworking capitalist” Gideon Bloodgood (Ed Holmes), an investment banker who easily justifies stealing millions in order to “save the free market”; his daughter, spoiled-rich-girl-turned-radical Alida (“Call me Tanya!”); and the very sinister-looking Occupy activist Damian Landless (Mime Troupe newcomer Reggie D. White), who swirls around in a black cape.
The Mime Troupe — funny as ever, and loaded as ever with witty, tuneful songs by composer-lyricist-musician Pat Moran — paints in varied shades this time around, eschewing a black-and-white, good-guys-bad-guys scenario in favor of a more nuanced approach to its well-established radical agenda.
Now, when our country is as politically polarized as it’s ever been, how clever and subversive to undermine a national inclination to demonize apparent enemies. Instead, the troupe shows how things fall apart if we citizens fail to scrutinize the issues.
It’s a lesson taught with the greatest comic skills, but it’s a serious lesson that rightfully ought to leave us amused — and uneasy.