Power to the Park People

Free political theater for the masses.

It’s amazing that there are still people in the Bay Area who act surprised to learn the San Francisco Mime Troupe does agitprop musical comedy rather than pantomime. The collective has been putting on shows for free in the parks every summer for nearly fifty years, so you’d think people would have caught on by now. It’s their patriotic duty as active, informed citizens to check out what they have to say.

Of course, it’s nice when it doesn’t feel like a duty. Red State, written and directed by Michael Gene Sullivan, is certainly amusing enough to keep you entertained for its ninety minutes sans intermission. The story is much flimsier than last year’s war-profiteering satire Making a Killing, and the message vaguer, but it’s often very funny, with some strong performances and catchy songs from rags to R&B to country.

A presidential election has resulted in a tie (the candidates are never mentioned), and it’s up to the citizens of a run-down Kansas town to break the tie, because they’d been given a defective voting machine. The former union town has lost all its social services — the hospital and high school have closed, and now the pencil factory that’s the sole source of employment is moving to Uzbekistan. Also the library’s closing, which means the long-simmering love between right-wing laborer Eugene (Robert Ernst) and progressive librarian Miss Rosa (Velina Brown) will remain unexpressed as she leaves town. Gradually the citizens of Bluebird realize they can hold the election hostage to get some much-needed government dollars for civic improvements.

Ultimately the show’s about Eugene, whose labor hero father was derided as a commie. Now Eugene has a knee-jerk reaction about spending government dollars on the people and hollers at the slightest provocation, “I ain’t no red!” Will he get over it in time to help save the town?

Brown doubles as midlevel bureaucrat Faustina Page, who just wants to get transferred out of whatever state this is — she can never remember — for a desk job in glamorous Washington, DC, which she sings about like it’s a tropical paradise. Her song as no-nonsense Miss Rosa is a knockout, but her parts as written aren’t much to work with. Rosa doesn’t get much stage time, and chirpy Faustina makes a half-baked villain. Former Blake Street Hawkeye Ernst gives a strong and sympathetic performance as a working-class antihero, and Noah James Butler has some hilarious turns as hick Wendell and the cheeseball mayor. Lisa Hori-Garcia, Lizzie Calogero, and Adrian C. Mejia breeze through as a variety of townsfolk and TV commentators.

The upshot is that the people have the power, and that the taxes we pay should be spent on us, which sounds both pretty reasonable and unusually simplistic. It’s a good thing the Mime Troupe tends to have follow-up materials available for the incensed to take action, because the thesis in the play seems underdeveloped.

You wouldn’t have a Mime Troupe if there hadn’t been Bertolt Brecht a generation before, and one thing that Brecht makes perfectly clear in The Good Person of Szechuan is that nothing is simple.

The gods come to town looking for one good person, and latch on to the prostitute Shen Te, even though she insists she’s not good and is too poor to follow the commandments. They give her money to open a tobacco shop, and she’s immediately beset by freeloaders and has to pose as her fictional male cousin Shui Ta to make them back off.

Woman’s Will is also staging Good Person free in the parks now, in a new adaptation by artistic director Erin Merritt with a large cast and a versatile set by Jackie Scott that looks like its own unfinished backside. Rona Siddiqui’s new a cappella arrangements for Brecht’s songs sound like sea chanteys.

Holly Chou is lively and appealing as outgoing water seller Wang, and El Beh has a commanding presence as gruff cousin Shui Ta, although her Shen Te becomes exaggeratedly passive when she goes back to being herself. Maryssa Wanlass has a terrific roguish swagger as bad-boy pilot Yang Sun, and Anne Hallinan makes an amusing busybody as former shop owner Mrs. Shin. Susan Jackson, Molly Nicholas, and Lisa Patten offer some halfhearted slapstick as the three gods, and their final musical number comes off, in the second week of performances, as if they’d never sang it before.

Merritt’s adaptation adds a few distracting contemporary references and could stand trimming, but the staging is generally well-paced, some missed entrances and variable performances aside. Although Woman’s Will’s usual all-female casting adds a layer when the characters are cross-dressing within the play, Brecht’s plays are so non-naturalistic that it hardly matters. It gets its point across entertainingly, which is remarkable enough for a play that apologizes at the end for not solving anything. As informed and active citizens that’s your job. Get cracking.


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