For fifty-one years, the San Francisco Mime Troupe has adhered to a single mission: Thwart, satirize, mock, mudsling, ballyhoo, and otherwise undermine the capitalist economic system, by any means necessary. Of course, “means” are hard to come by for a small political theater group on a shoestring budget. The SF Mime Troupe has a few fantastic writers in its arsenal, some with a keen ability to translate high-minded concepts into layman’s terms. They all coalesce around Michael Gene Sullivan, a director, actor, part-time Huffington Post blogger, self-proclaimed rouser, and head writer for the Troupe’s recent spate of plays, whose themes ranged from Christian evangelism, to Iraq War propaganda, to red state-blue state balkanization. For the past two years, though, Mime Troupe has gone back to its old standby: Failures of capitalism. That was easy last year with the banking crisis, and a lot harder this year. By early 2010, the economic downturn had run its course as a news item, and SF Mime Troupe had to reach a lot farther for material.
In fact, it reached all the way to Latin America. The troupe’s new play Posibilidad, or Death of the Worker takes place partly in the US, and partly in a small pueblo in Buenos Aires, where workers attempt to seize their textile mill from an evil patron (Maggie Mason). In comparison to last year’s Too Big to Fail, Posibilidad relies on a series of very simple plot-twists. Peace Weavers — a small manufacturer of organic, cruelty-free, ostensibly fair trade hemp leisure ware — turns out to be a shell for the evil corporation Jenkins Clothing International. Jenkins uses all manner of nefarious business practices, from sweatshops to low factory wages to CEO kick-backs, even though it likes to keep a veneer of liberal respectability. It turns out the company director, Ernesto (Rotimi Agbabiaka) is actually an heir to the Jenkins dynasty (according to the other characters, his real name is Earnest Jenkins). And, like the business proper, he’s a fraud. Easily the best evil villain to emerge from a Mime Troupe play in three years, Ernesto sashays about the stage in loose-fitting hemp apparel, dinging a pair of bells, and using Enya as a form of aural assault. The workers bide their time sewing “Made in the USA” tags on sweatshop clothing and watching telenovelas.
Naturally, the center cannot hold. Ms. Gachs (also played by Mason), a blond woman in a stiff pencil skirt, arrives to voice shareholder concerns about financial profligacy at Peace Weavers. Most of the blame rests on Ernesto, who pilfered from corporate coffers to buy his Tesla sports car and happy-ending massages, among other things. In typical Mime Troupe villain fashion, Ernesto passes his personal failures down to the workers, and shuts his factory down. They stage a sit-in. The main instigator, Sofia (Lisa Hori-Garcia) boosts everyone’s morale with tales of a similar worker-takeover in her Argentinean hometown, Posibilidad. From there, you can pretty much tell where the story is going.
Yes, it’s uncannily similar to Too Big to Fail, and understandably so as both bear the imprimatur of playwright Gene Sullivan and director Wilma Bonet. But compared to its predecessor, Posibilidad is more spare and comprehensible, if a little less topical. Which is to say, it’s really just a parable about capitalism and labor politics. And it’s practically timeless. But for a couple of pop culture nods to New Age-ism and the World Cup soccer craze, Posibilidad could been made in the 1970s.
In a way, that makes it a better play. Despite the flashback narrative and a few juxtapositions in time and space, it’s pretty easy to follow. The drama relies on stark contrasts between good guys and bad guys. Among the heroes are a pregnant Argentine ex-pat, a second-generation immigrant from the Philippines, and a no-nonsense, working-class mother. All elicit sympathy; each has a gritty exterior and a heart of gold. The villains all slither about the stage, speaking in unctuous corporate patois. There’s the usual corrupted character (Joe, played by Gene Sullivan), who starts off sorta good, then falls prey to his own hubris. The Latin theme lends itself to Tango dance numbers and a driving musical score, provided by Pat Moran. All elements conjoin to form a neat, ninety-minute performance, complete with sex jokes and a song-and-dance number called “All About the Bottom Line.” Nina Ball‘s factory set combines a pulley system with an exposed brick façade.
To anyone born after Reagan’s inauguration, Red Scare bullying and Marxist rhetoric might seem a little — well, dated. But wait, there’s a lot of salvageable material here. One need not be a Marxist to recognize corporate malfeasance, or feckless CEOs, or evil power plays. It’s easy to align with the workers in Posibilidad and root for their nascent collective. (The word “collective” drew successive cheers from the audience at Berkeley’s Cedar Rose Park last Saturday.) And granted, nothing cures the bad economy blues so well as a little good-trumping-evil.