SF Mime Troupe rocks the boat in Ripple Effect

Mime Troupe 2
Lisa Hori-Garcia (left, as Jeanine Adenauer), Keiko Shimosato Carreiro (center, as Sunny Nguyen) and Velina Brown (as Deborah Johnson) in this year’s San Francisco Mime Troupe free show Ripple Effect. Photo by DavidAllenStudio.com

I must admit that for a while there, I ceased looking forward to the July Fourth debut of the latest San Francisco Mime Troupe show at Dolores Park. The productions were feeling slack or worse, forced. The writing was off and the politics came off as strident or silly rather than relevant or even entertaining.Happy to report that this year’s show, Ripple Effect, is a major improvement. Much of the credit must go to writers Tanya Shaffer and Eugenie Chan, who co-wrote the show along with the Mime Troupe’s Michael Gene Sullivan. Very smart to tap two of the Bay Area’s most interesting playwrights.

I reviewed Ripple Effect for the San Francisco Chronicle. Here’s a sampling:

This year’s offering, “Ripple Effect,” which opened, as tradition dictates, in Dolores Park on the Fourth of July, could be full of rage, disgust and an overwhelming sense of injustice. And it is, to a degree. But it’s wrapped in a brightly written, laugh-laden, altogether chipper package that makes it one of the most enjoyable Mime Troupe outings in recent memory.

As written by Michael Gene Sullivan, Eugenie Chan and Tanya Shaffer, “Ripple Effect” takes its time working the audience into a fit of San Francisco outrage (about life in San Francisco no less), but by the end, fists are pumping and everyone’s chanting, “Justice rules and the Earth comes first!”

Though tech companies, outrageous rents and the displacement of San Francisco’s working class are the obvious fuel for this year’s show, the focus is personal.

Read the full review here.

And one of the best parts of this year’s Mime Troupe experience: bringing Fanny, the original Theater Dog, who doesn’t actually get to see much theater. She had a splendid time as well.

Fanny Mime Troupe

San Francisco Mime Troupe’s Ripple Effect tours Bay Area and Northern California parks through Sept. 1. Shows are free. Call 415-285-1717 or visit www.sfmt.org.

Come on, man, return the van

Last Saturday night, the San Francisco Mime Troupe’s one and only transport van was stolen. In preparation for this summer’s road tour around the Bay Area, the Troupe had just outfitted the blue 1994 seven-passenger Chevy with new tires. The van was parked in the South Mission/Excelsior area waiting to be loaded up with equipment for the Troupe’s music rehearsal the next morning.

SFMT 50The Troupe, celebrating its 50th Anniversary this summer, did not have theft insurance on the stolen vehicle. They desperately need a van to transport the troupers to and from the parks where they are scheduled to perform their 50th Anniversary production, Too Big to Fail (July 4-September 27). They are making an emergency appeal to the Bay Area community in the hopes that someone can come forward and donate a van (for a tax deduction). If anyone has info about the high-jacked vehicle, or can donate a transport van, please contact San Francisco Mime Troupe general manager Jenee Gill at 415-285-1717.

The Tony Award-winning SFMT opens its song-and-dance satire of monumental proportions, Too Big to Fail, July 4 in San Francisco’s Dolores Park. All performances are free (unless otherwise noted) and open to the public.

Mime Troupe Alumna Wilma Bonet directs Velina Brown, BW Gonzalez, Ed Holmes, Lisa Hori-Garcia, Adrian Mejia and Michael Gene Sullivan, with music and lyrics by Pat Moran.

Visit www.sfmt.org for complete tour information.

Michael Gene Sullivan rouses the theatrical rabble

Earlier this week I attended the Theatre Bay Area Annual Conference, and amid much useful information about the state of local and national theater, and in between the networking and general schmoozing, I heard a voice of startling sanity.

Michael Gene Sullivan, a local writer/actor/director, gave the closing inspirational speech, and it was a doozy. Sullivan, in case you don’t know, is the head writer for the San Francisco Mime Troupe (not that kind of mime – they specialize in sharp political satire and sticking it to the man). He’s a frequent contributor to the Huffington Post, and his adaptation of George Orwell’s
1984 was directed by Tim Robbins for the Actor’s Gang in Los Angeles.

Sullivan, an old-school San Francisco rabble rouser in the best sense, was fired up from the start of his speech as he pointed out that the $700 billion bail-out does not really compute because there are fewer than 7 billion people on the planet, so that’s about $100 for every man, woman and child on the planet.

Then he let Wall Street have it: “These Wizards of Wall Street – whose genius was not in buying low and selling high, but in keeping the rest of us so hypnotized with hype, so distracted with glitter, so backed into a terrifying corner with their economic shock and awe that Americans failed to do the obvious – which was hunt them down, beat in their doors, drag them naked, screaming and crying into the streets and redistribute their wealth and internal organs all across this great country of ours.”

Then he asked a question: “And who wouldn’t want to do a play about that? Doesn’t it sound better than remounting Wind in the Willows…again? Who wouldn’t want to do a play about the people of this country actually waking up and grabbing these pencil-necked free market pirates by their pitiful comb-overs?…What would Moliere do? Skewer the greedy weasels on a comically hot spit, then slowly roast them over a fire of their own lies!”

Sullivan challenged the theater makers in the room to challenge themselves and their audiences – a difficult thing to do in economically challenging times. “If theater doesn’t … challenge us to be our better selves, our braver selves, teach us about one another – if we as artists and audience don’t leave a show smarter, better, more human people than before, then what we saw was not theater. It was television.”

But here we are in a country that doesn’t value the arts, where the government provides precious little funding for the arts and much of the slack comes from charitable foundations and corporations. Sullivan, of course, warns against becoming corporate shills for the sake of survival, but he warns just as vehemently against entertainment for entertainment’s sake, which he equates with Internet porn.

“Internet porn is not out to change the world, it’s not looking to show the injustice, racism or sexism inherent in our society. It is not a demand for equal rights or even a mild reminder that things could be better. Its sole purpose is to entertain its audience – normally one at a time and probably in a cubicle. Porn, like commercial TV, is not meant to be cutting edge or politically challenging. It is the perfect example of entertainment for the sake of entertainment. And you know what you never hear about with Internet porn? A lack of funding. You never hear about porn producers struggling over a grant application.”

So short of becoming the theatrical equivalent of Internet porn (fluffers included), what’s the answer as we head into the next Great Depression? Sullivan frankly admits he has no idea, but for theater to continue to survive, as it has done since the Ancient Greeks, theater must remain dangerous.

“Each of us has the power and talent to undermine institutional stupidity and crime. We will not only say the Emperor is wearing no clothes, but also that his testicles look a little funny…And that feeling of immediacy, of danger, of theater being not a refuge from the real world but a starker version of my experience of the hope and engagement in a time of injustice – that’s what I want to create, and that is what all of us can give our audience. Hope.”

The conclusion that Sullivan comes to is that theater has to become important to people’s lives.

“We have to stop thinking of ourselves as the `theater community.’ We have to train ourselves and others to think of us as a beloved and necessary part of the larger community – a part that is vital to telling their stories, vital to helping us all understand ourselves better, vital to enunciating and being a part of the fight to make this life fairer, more equitable and just.”

There it is. A rant. A manifesto. A big slice of common sense, which is in short supply these days.

You can read Michael Gene Sullivan’s complete speech here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michael-gene-sullivan/my-speech-to-the-membersh_b_133102.html

And while you’re there, read his other posts. He’s a terrific writer whose sense of humor never obscures his sharp points.

Review: `Red State’

Opened July 4 in Dolores Park

The cast of the San Francisco Mime Troupe’s Red State includes (from left) Lisa Hori-Garcia, Lizzie Calogero, Robert Ernst and Adrian C. Mejia. Photos by David Allen

Great songs make Mime Troupe’s `Red State’ sing

This Fourth of July, at the premiere of SF Mime Troupe’s latest opus, Red State, petitions were circulating to get a local sewage plant named after George W. Bush. Another group was fighting the push to charge $115 for replacement library books. Cindy Sheehan was there, so were giant dragonflies dancing over the heads of the theatergoers/revelers, and even the sun made intermittent appearances.

With the impending presidential election, this is prime time for a nearly 50-year-old lefty-loony theatrical troupe with satire on its collective mind.

Written and directed by Michael Gene Sullivan, Red State forgoes the big, easy targets and focuses on the little man. Specifically, the show is about the dying Kansas town of Bluebird, where the hospital, the public schools and the farms are all kaput.

It’s Election Day 2008, and by some bizarre twist, the results are tied, with only one district not reporting any results. Yes, little Bluebird – with its late-arriving ballot machine and dwindling population – holds the key to the nation’s highest office.

Though it bears a strange resemblance to Swing Vote, an upcoming Kevin Costner film about a regular guy who holds the deciding vote in the presidential election, Red State is sharp for most of its 90 minutes. There’s a dull patch in the last third, but things pick up by the end.

The real high point of the show is Pat Moran’s score. He has written some great songs about struggling Americans. In “How Much” a woman trying to sell her last few possessions sings, “What’s the use of memories when you can’t make enough to get through the day?”

And in the showstopper, Velina Brown (above with Robert Ernst), as Miss Rosa the librarian, sings “Leaving Town.” Soulful and with a hint of ’50s blues, the song bemoans a country where the educated are in the minority and the priority is bombs over brains. In the end, Miss Rosa sings that she’s just another over-educated, unemployed old woman whose country doesn’t want anything she has to offer.

Red State lives up to its name during a fantastic fantasy sequence in which the son of a diehard union man (Ernst) gets swept away by a twister and wakes up in an alternate socialist reality in which his town is thriving, health care is paid for, the pencil factory is still running and no families are living in their Oldsmobiles.
Seems this pithy scene is worthy of a show all its own, but when the man returns to the real world, his heart beats with socialist fervor as he sings the praises of “Bein’ Red.”

Also in the perky cast are Noah James Butler (whose funniest character is God-fearing Wendell, a man trying to sell a giant crucifix), Lizzie Calogero (hilarious as a creaky homeless granny), Lisa Hori-Garcia (as a dutiful mom trying to keep her family afloat while her husband fights in Afghanistan) and Adrian Mejia (as a hometown boy turned soldier just back from the Middle East).
Red State gets its message out there with plenty of laughs to cut the sting. As one man says: “Fighting just keeps you tired – too tired to realize you might be fighting the wrong fight.” Ouch.

Red State continues its free park tour through Sept. 14 and is likely coming to a park near you. Visit www.sfmt.org for a complete schedule or call 415-285-1717.