'Too Big to Fail' presents capitalism gone awry
By: Jean Schiffman
Special to The Examiner
July 8, 2009
SAN FRANCISCO In its latest satirical musical, the intrepid San
Francisco Mime Troupe poses this question: Who is more important, the
king or the people?
"Too Big To Fail," an unapologetically anti-capitalist comedy framed
as an African folk tale, pits the "king" and other money-grubbing
meanies and their minions against a bunch of foolish and greedy
villagers, cannibalistic fish and other metaphorical victims of
megacorporations that are, yes, too big to fail.
By show's end, the answer to the king-or-people conundrum is clear,
and sure, you can guess what it is.
The troupe also offers a simple and straightforward solution to
change our country's economic downturn and set us on the righteous
path but you'll have to see the show to find out what it is.
As the griot, or African storyteller, Michael Gene Sullivan (who also
wrote the script) weaves a tale of human folly: When young Filije
(Adrian C. Mejia) marries the tribal chief's daughter, Jeneeba
(Velina Brown), he's not so sure her meager dowry, a goat (Lisa
Hori-Garcia), is enough to begin his marriage in style.
A mysterious old woman (BW Gonzalez, gleefully evil with a Wicked
Witch of the West cackle) introduces him and the other villagers to
"magical" credit cards.
Clueless Filije signs a contract, and the next thing he knows, he's
turning in his goat as collateral ("Buy a whole herd of goats with no
money down!"), and his first payment is due.
Only by undertaking a long, overseas quest will he be able to fight
assorted money-grubbing demons (a resplendently toothy shark, an oily
reptile in a zoot suit and others) and erase his debt.
Meanwhile, back in the village, Jeneeba tries to warn her neighbors
of the foreclosures and bankruptcies ahead if they continue their
mindlessly free-spending ways.
Under Wilma Bonet's carefully calibrated direction, this is one of
the 50-year-old company's most tightly structured and smoothly
polished shows in years.
The ensemble including the troupe's comical resident villain Ed
Holmes in several roles performs with buoyant energy and excellent
physical and vocal skills.
Pat Moran's songs are tuneful and pointed, and the band provides
terrific African-themed music and sound effects. Especially
delightful this year are Emilica S. Beahm's dazzling and colorful costumes.
"Buying into capitalism is the working class' curse," warns the
griot. It's hard to disagree with that premise, the way the Mime
Troupe puts it in this hilarious musical.
Too Big to Fail
Presented by San Francisco Mime Troupe
Where: Peacock Meadow, Golden Gate Park on Saturday; Glen Park on
Sunday, San Francisco
When: 2 p.m.; preshow music at 1:30 p.m. both days
Contact: (415) 285-1717, www.sfmt.org
Note: Performances continue around the Bay Area on weekends through September.
Other San Francisco shows:
Aug. 15: Washington Square Park
Aug. 16: Yerba Buena Gardens
Sept. 5-7: Dolores Park
Failure is not an option for S.F. Mime Troupe's show
THERE ARE MANY fine Fourth of July traditions in the Bay Area, and
one of the most reliable is the opening that afternoon of the San
Francisco Mime Troupe's latest free summer show in the Mission
District's Dolores Park.
You could hardly ask for a more patriotic tradition than the sharp,
rabble-rousing political satire offered by the troupe's touring
outdoor shows, and at this point it's become one of the region's most
venerable rituals as well.
This year marks a half century since R.G. Davis founded the Mime
Troupe in 1959. The performing style of the company, a collective
since 1970, has evolved somewhat between its early commedia dell'arte
shows and the original musical satires it devises today, but the
troupe's remarkable longevity has made it the oldest continuing
political theater ensemble in the nation.
There are a number of 50th anniversary events planned in October and
November, including exhibits and panels at the San Francisco Main
Library and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, plus a Mill Valley Film
Festival showing of the 1985 documentary "Troupers" with live
performance to follow. But in the meantime, the current troupe is
celebrating by simply doing what it does.
This summer's Mime Troupe production, which continues through Sept.
27 and comes to Marin twice - Mill Valley on July 15 and Bolinas on
Aug. 2 - isn't bigger, fancier or more star-studded than usual. It
does have a returning troupe veteran in director Wilma Bonet, a
former performing member from the 1980s slew of acclaimed and
still-hummed shows such as "Steeltown" and the "Factwino" trilogy
that led to a 1987 Tony Award for regional theater. Mostly this
year's play is a particularly enjoyable and solid example of the kind
of show that the group creates year after year.
With a style inspired by West African griot storytellers, "Too Big to
Fail" starts off in a small village, unspecified but seemingly in
Africa to judge from the accents, Nina Ball's evocative hut-strewn
scenery and Emilica Sun Beahm's colorful costumes.
No sooner is the young couple Filije and Jeneeba given a goat as a
dowry by the bride's father, the chief - or as he keeps reminding the
narrator, "the handsome chief" - than a mysterious old woman appears
promising to make Filije rich through a magic spell called "credit."
All he has to do is sign away his only goat as collateral and keep up
with the exorbitant fees and monthly payments. As soon as he signs
up, he end up with nothing, and has to journey across the sea to the
head office to try to cancel his debt. Meanwhile Jeneeba struggles to
stop the rest of the village from falling under the same spell.
Presiding over it all is the griot played by Michael Gene Sullivan,
who wrote the script with Ellen Callas. Sullivan is enchanting as the
storyteller, full of oversize exuberance and sly humor. He
periodically interrupts the action to tell thematically related
allegorical fables that sound ancient in style while proving
thoroughly modern in message.
Adrian Mejia is charming as the hapless and thick-headed hero Filije,
and Velina Brown makes a formidable Jeneeba, his righteously nagging
bride. Ed Holmes gets a respite from the sneering villainy of past
troupe shows as the sympathetic, gullible chief, while BW Gonzales
makes a delightfully over-the-top, tongue-waggling baddie as the old
woman. Lisa Hori-Garcia is priceless as a flighty villager, giddy
about being pre-approved for one card after another despite having no money.
The ending feels a bit rushed but it's awfully funny throughout, from
an Oz-like stop in a city where everyone sees through money-green
glasses to a sea voyage amid fish who gobble each other up in
euphemistic mergers and acquisitions. Pat Moran's clever songs are
strengthened by African rhythms, from the soulful "More Money" to the
jazzy title number. The message, alas, could not be more timely, when
the credit system has never seemed more like a house of cards.
- What: San Francisco Mime Troupe's "Too Big to Fail"
- When: 7 p.m. July 15
- Where: Mill Valley Community Center, 180 Camino Alto
- Admission: Free (donations accepted)
- When: 2:30 p.m. Aug. 2
- Where: Mesa Park, Bolinas
- Admission: $20 suggested donation; 868-2128
- Information: 285-1717, www.sfmt.org
- Rating: Four out of five stars
Contact Sam Hurwitt at firstname.lastname@example.org
Theater review: 'Too Big to Fail'
Robert Hurwitt, Chronicle Theater Critic
Tuesday, July 7, 2009
Too Big to Fail: Musical comedy. By Michael Gene Sullivan. Music and
lyrics by Pat Moran. Directed by Wilma Bonet. With Velina Brown,
Adrian C. Mejia, Sullivan, Ed Holmes et al. (Through Sept. 27. 90
minutes. Free. Call (415) 285-1717 or go to www.sfmt.org.)
Beware financial advisers bearing gifts. Life looks pretty good for
the newlyweds in a tiny African village until credit rears its ugly head.
It takes a perilous trek across an ocean of greed and into corporate
lairs - and a few high-octane songs - before our gullible but
determined hero can rescue his wife and their village in the San
Francisco Mime Troupe's buoyantly rabble-rousing "Too Big to Fail."
Saturday was not only Independence Day, but Mime Troupe Day in San
Francisco, by order of the Board of Supervisors. The company and
about a thousand friends celebrated the opening of its 50th season in
a sun-drenched Dolores Park with a few proclamations, the traditional
blessing from the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence ("Go and sin some
more") and an upbeat and timely edition of its annual free show in the parks.
It's a fable with a moral told frankly in just that form, with
aspects of "The Wizard of Oz," musical comedy and "The Odyssey" mixed
into Aesop-meets-Uncle Remus African griot animal tales. Playwright
Michael Gene Sullivan, typecast as a magnetic Storyteller, slips from
one slyly instructive tale to another until he plunges into the main
narrative, which he interrupts at times with more beguiling fables.
Nina Ball's storybook African village set bursts into life with a
wedding dance. No sooner are Filije (Adrian C. Mejia) and Jeneeba
(Velina Brown) married, though, than trouble breaks out. Impatient to
provide for his family and bewitched (literally) by an evil witch (BW
Gonzalez) with an offer of credit, Filije signs away his wife's dowry
- a particularly sweet goat as portrayed by Lisa Hori-Garcia - and
their whole future.
The bulk of "Too Big" is the odyssey of Filije's hapless heroic quest
to cancel their rapidly accumulating debt, a trek in which he has to
vanquish various free-market demons.
An Oz-like city is ruled by a snarling, zoot suit-clad Demon of
Privatization (Hori-Garcia). An ocean full of merger carnivores leads
to an encounter with Brown's hilariously voracious shark (excellent
batik and storybook costumes by Emilica S. Beahm).
Meanwhile, Jeneeba is fighting a losing battle against the
consumer-debt mania taking over the village.
It's all as entertaining as it is didactic. Sullivan is disarmingly
open about his intentions, but he also doesn't pretend to have all
the answers. He's more intent on getting us to question the
fundamentals of a system dependent on citizens "living and dying in debt."
"Too Big" flounders a bit toward the end, though, after the music
dies. Strangely, Pat Moran's five songs are all front-loaded, rising
to a peak with Brown and troupe stalwart Ed Holmes' buoyant
credit-dream duet "Happy Man" and soaring on her shark's
torch-knockout title song.
Sullivan's cagey humor and the ensemble's engaging performances keep
it entertaining, under Wilma Bonet's tight direction and
choreography. But it sure could use another song.
E-mail Robert Hurwitt at email@example.com.
Too Big to Fail
(Dolores Park, San Francisco; open seating; free)
By DENNIS HARVEY
Jul. 6, 2009
A San Francisco Mime Troupe presentation of a play in one act by
Michael Gene Sullivan, with music and lyrics by Pat Moran. Directed
and choreographed by Wilma Bonet.
With: Michael Gene Sullivan, Lisa Hori-Garcia, Ed Holmes, Velina
Brown, Adrian C. Mejia, BW Gonzalez.
A major milestone for U.S. political theater, the San Francisco Mime
Troupe's 50th anniversary is marked by "Too Big to Fail," a
relatively minor addition to the annals of the company's free annual
park shows. As usual, script and production are likely to tone up
during the ensuing weeks of Northern California tour stops. But at
present this comic parable about the current global financial
meltdown is just an amiable, rather than notably hilarious or barbed,
demonstration of SFMT's time-tested agitprop punch.
With a tip of the hat to West African Griot traditions, a playful
storyteller (playwright Michael Gene Sullivan) serves as our guide,
periodically interrupting the main narrative to relate shorter
parables in which animal-kingdom follies echo mankind's own.
Such digressions aside, main focus is on the odyssey of Filije
(Adrian C. Mejia), who marries village sweetheart Jeneeha (Velina
Brown) and receives a goat as dowry. Material ambition, however,
makes him easy prey for an uninvited wedding guest (BW Gonzalez). Her
curious gift is the "magic" of something called "credit," with which
he can immediately realize his dreams of more goats, a better home,
etc. "Life can be so carefree and pleasant/When you live in the
present," the benefactress, a witchy old woman, trills.
Naturally, there are strings attached, like interest and hidden
charges. Before he can say ouch, Filije is down one goat and in major
debt. Spousal outrage drives him out on an epic journey seeking
justice across the sea, where his invisible corporate captors live.
Meanwhile, the entire village falls under the woman's "spell," buying
things they don't need with money they don't have. Suddenly huts are
being mortgaged to the hilt, while crops and livestock are neglected
for the new thrills of iPhone and Wii. Needless to say, when blind
faith in credit-driven economics results in a crash, it's the merged
and monopolizing corporations that get bailed out, not the consumers
they have lured into lifelong penury.
But rather than face their own greedy enabling of morally (and now
literally) bankrupt institutions, the villagers blame the messenger:
lone-voice-of-reason Jeneeha. They propose burning her at the stake
to dispel the "bad magic" supposedly generated by her failure to
"believe in the system," whose marketing sway they remain under.
With a nod to "The Wizard of Oz" and other folkloric totems, "Too Big
to Fail" sports frequent rhymed text and some witty strokes, as when
Filije lands in a metropolis where the Demon of Privatization (Lisa
Hori-Garcia) has made virtually everything a market commodity -- even
the air one breathes. Questioning this capitalism run amok, our hero
is asked, "Why do you hate freedom?"
Yet the show's concept never quite lifts off, with fanciful touches
jostling against pedestrian men-in-suits villainy, unmemorable song
interludes and a sluggish wrap-up that takes too long getting to the
"Live within your means" message. Wilma Bonet's direction and
choreography are lively but lacking character; Emilica S. Beahm's
costumes rep the most distinctive design contrib.
Multicast thesps are able, but as yet this is not a Mime Troupe show
with the overall bite or standout moments to draw out the company's best.
More than one option
(Person) Pat Moran
Casting, Location Casting, Production Supervisor
(Person) Pat Moran
(Person) Pat Moran
(Person) Pat Moran
Set, Nina Ball; costumes, Emilica S. Beahm; sound, Will McCandless,
SFMT Band; musical direction, Moran; fight direction, Carla Pantoja;;
production stage manager, Karen Runk. Opened, reviewed July 4, 2009.
Running time: 1 HOUR, 30 MIN.