The Great Recession: Too Big to Satirize?

In Too Big to Fail, the fifty-year-old SF Mime Troupe tries to make sense of our global financial crisis.

Even in the wake of a global financial crisis, most of us aren’t any
more knowledgeable about it all than we were two years ago. As you go
deeper in the trenches of investment banking, the picayune details get
harder and harder to understand. To many of us, it’s just a morass of
key words and algorithms: Subprime loans = bad. Credit default swaps =
bad. AIG, Bernie Madoff, and Citibank = bad, bad, bad. Now, try
dramatizing the rest of the story, as San Francisco Mime Troupe has
done in its new play Too Big to Fail. Directed by Wilma Bonet
and written by the indefatigable Michael Gene Sullivan, it runs through
September 27 in parks throughout Northern California. It’s a valiant
attempt to distill a very abstruse concept into ninety minutes of
banter, musical numbers, and social justice messages.

Too Big to Fail marks the Mime Troupe’s fiftieth play, and
it’s probably one of the most ambitious in terms of the topic at hand.
(In previous years, SF Mime Troupe portrayed right-wing fanatics as
Guys and Dolls gangsters, lampooned the citizens of Kansas, and
satirized the idea of “embedded journalism.”) As a result, this year is
a little flimsier than the Mime Troupe’s previous work —
financial meltdowns don’t exactly hew to clean, coherent storylines.
Yet the jokes are intelligent, and the format — satire void of
direct caricature — shows SF Mime Troupe moving in an interesting
new direction.

Interesting, but risky. The troupe set its story of modern
enterprise and greed in the most ancient place it could think of: an
African village, where a griot (played by Sullivan) narrates the story
of kind-hearted but covetous Filije (Adrian C. Mejia), and his
no-nonsense wife Jeneeba (Velina Brown). The two receive a goat
(Bamusa, played by Lisa Hori-Garcia) from Jeneeba’s father (Mime Troupe
vet Ed Holmes) as a wedding gift, which seems insufficient to Filije.
(He aspires to own a whole herd — perhaps even a goat cheese
factory.) Despite his wife’s protestations, Filije turns to a lender,
who proffers the magical gift of credit. Dressed as a sorceress, she
seduces Filije with the promise of all the goats his heart desires
— along with laptops, flat-screens, iPhones, Botox, bling,
perhaps a mortgage on a new hut. Using Bamusa as collateral, Filije
signs a contract without reading the fine print, and instantly gets
slapped with an exorbitant down payment. His goat is repossessed.

From there, the story gets increasingly tangled, in typical Mime
Troupe fashion. Filije sets off to snuff out the evil lender. He
encounters a strange, mythical land (Wall Street, apparently), where
all the residents wear funny green goggles and attempt to buy and sell
everything in their midst. Their guru is a leprechaun-type character
with a green scepter and a dollar-sign medallion. When Filije questions
their ethics, they call him a commie. Meanwhile, back at the village,
Jeneeba gets saddled with some demon-fighting of her own, as her fellow
villagers get hooked on modern material pleasures: cell phones with
Beyoncé “Single Ladies” ringtones, hip new threads, iPhone
applications, Nintendo Wii, and SUV goat carts. Villagers are flossing
bling, flipping huts, and flashing credit cards. Jeneeba, who sings
several musical numbers throughout (in a voice that’s quite stirring,
but not flawless), becomes the play’s reluctant moral compass.

Naturally, it’s a bit gimmicky. To turn an extremely complex
narrative into an anti-capitalist parable requires a lot of
condensation, a few winking references, and a little suspension of
disbelief. In that sense, the African folk-tale format serves SF Mime
Troupe quite well. It allows them to impose stark contrasts of good and
evil on a story with few definitive heroes or villains. The griot
frequently interrupts the story to tell a fable about the animal
kingdom, which always seems loosely related to the themes of the play.
The evil characters all speak in rhyme, using stockbroker patois (i.e.,
If you can’t pay, it’s your crime/That’s what I get for lending to
people who are subprime
, or We’re expanding overseas/So many
more peasants to squeeze
). Such antics give Sullivan a chance to
flaunt his writing chops.

For all its wit, Too Big to Fail is ultimately less
satisfying than most of the Mime Troupe’s previous work. The theme is
to blame. Sullivan and company didn’t really have a choice but to cover
the economic recession, which is, after all, the biggest news story of
the year. They do a decent job of boiling it down to one moral message
— that you can’t base a global economy on the illusory idea of
“consumer confidence.” But, ultimately, the Mime Troupe was built to
skewer Alaskan governors and third-party Texas billionaires, not sing
the bad economy blues. Perhaps a corporation is never too big to fail,
but a financial crisis is definitely too big to satirize.

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