Fresno Beehive

Summer Arts review: San Francisco Mime Troupe
By Donald Munro

July 9, 2009 5:51 PM

It's probably way too bourgeoisie to admit this, but I thoroughly enjoyed watching the San Francisco Mime Troupe perform its excellent new show, "Too Big to Fail," in a comfortable indoor theater. The other times I've seen this energetic company perform in Fresno, it was in an outdoor park environment: me sprawled out on the grass, the actors competing with planes passing overhead, the lighting design nothing more than the hot glare of the sun.

That's the way that this 50-year-old political theater usually operates, in fact. The idea is outside and free, and thus accessible. But for Summer Arts on Wednesday, the company agreed to an upgrade. Man, was it comfy.

I don't want to dwell too much on creature comforts, however. The reason that S.F. Mime's show (which opened July 4 in San Francisco) is so good is not just because I didn't get grass strains on my pants. This production, written by Michael Gene Sullivan and directed/choreographed by Wilma Bonet, is far superior to other S.F. Mime productions I've seen. The writing is crisp, the storyline cohesive but just endearingly twisted enough to intrigue, the musical numbers peppy and hummable, the acting superb. And the direction has a sizzle that I haven't always seen in past S.F. Mime shows.

It helps that the company (which does not perform pantomime, by the way, but is extremely vocal) usually bases its shows on current events, and this season they had some doozies to pick from. When the show starts, Sullivan (who also stars), playing the Storyteller, launches into a story about a lion that abuses his post as king of the jungle by eating his subjects. Sounds pretty traditional so far. Then the story comes to an abrupt end with this revelation: "I forgot to tell you the name of the lion. Citibank."

Thus kicks off a rambunctious tale that pokes fun at rampant consumerism, corporate greed, the sub-prime mortgage crisis, plummeting housing prices and the dangers of easy credit.

The cast is extremely strong, from Sullivan's genial Storyteller and Ed Holmes' puffed-up Chief to Adrian C. Mejia's flawed hero and Velina Brown's voice-of-reason rebel. I was gratified at the talent of someone like Lisa Hori-Garcia, who depicts everything from a darling little goat to the horrifying "Demon of Privitization."

The company -- which enjoys entreating the audience to fight back against big money -- scores big laughs with some obvious jokes. But it's at its best when it shoots off in tangents of pure whimsy, such as when we meet a sea full of free-market fish that justify eating each other by extolling the virtues of "mergers and acquisitions." Bonet uses clever stagecraft to set the scene (spinning blue umbrellas become a churning sea), Emilica S. Beahm's costumes are ingenious (gotta love those fish hats), and Bonet's choreography is bouncy without overpowering the storyline.

Though other S.F. Mime Troupe productions I've seen have gotten a little too broad and preachy, not to mention repetitive, this one is paced very well. At only one point, during the early wedding scene, does the action continue to dribble long past the joke/scenario has played out.

I was also thrilled by the three-person band, which bopped along with an easy, expert rhythm.

The thing that fascinated me about the show overall is how even-handed it was in parceling out the blame for our current economic crisis. Sure, the big banks and credit-card companies get a thorough beating. But the profligate consumer doesn't get a pass. I'm sure there must have been some people in the audience squirming a little while watching the show as they were reminded of their own credit-card debts. This is theater that cracks the whip a bit. More power to it.

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