You've seen the bumper stickers that say, "I love my country/ I fear my government"? That would about sum up this year's San Francisco Mime Troupe show, where the Oval Office is inhabited by real monsters -- the bloodsucking (literally) heads of America's most powerful corporations. Competing for the biggest capes, co-opting activists, and hooting in delight at how they've hornswoggled the American public through television commercials, these pinstriped creeps seem all-powerful and unstoppable. Or are they? Will plucky heroine Shamina Jones and psycho-Nosferatologist Professor van Helsing be able to break the evil spell these vampires have cast on the nation while freeing their ensorcelled friends Lucy and Gene?
In this clever conflation of the Dracula and Illuminati myths, muckraking reporter Gene Renfield is bitten by one of the bloodsuckers and turned to the dark side, a spell he desperately wants to break when he meets savvy engineer Shamina, inventor of a clever and unorthodox energy-saving device that has the unexpected power to break the hold of the bloodsucking corporations on the people of Earth. The love blossoming between Gene and Shamina is hampered by his insatiable desire for a cape of his own; torn between compulsions, he becomes a truly sorry excuse for a man, singing of his love for Shamina into the feather duster he wields in the White House. Conrad Cimarra is perfectly campy in the role, careening from slimy, murderous puppet to heartsick puppy. He's joined in the ranks of the bitten by the fabulous Anastasia Coon as Shamina's friend and business partner Lucy Morgan, who is transformed from a world-beating businesswoman into the sultriest, most seductive villainess to hit the parks in memory. Watching Coon slink through "The Winning Side," it's way too tempting to join her in believing "The world is ours -- let's use it up!"
Victor Toman as the intrepid van Helsing and Velina Brown as Shamina have their work cut out for them -- how many times have we seen versions of Bram Stoker's famous characters? Fortunately Shamina's got a lot more going on than Stoker's Mina -- she's not waiting around passively to be claimed by a husband or a vampire, no sir. Brown has a good time -- she gets to be both innocently furious and snarlingly nasty (she's let Lucy bite her, and spends most of the play fighting the transformation, to hilarious result). Toman's van Helsing is true to form as he fights for Shamina's soul, tries to get anyone to believe his theory about "incubus corporatus," and searches for the stake that will kill the bloodsuckers -- actually the charter of incorporation from which they draw their power.
Meanwhile in the Oval Office, the ridicule of Dubya begins early and never lets up. From the press corps' attempted indoctrination of pre-bite Gene Renfield ("We don't use big words or funny foreign names" they sing in "Press Conference") to Shamina's assessment of the chief executive ("Here I thought he was just the rich idiot son of a pencil-necked criminal"), this really is not a show for Republicans. (Although in light of Jim Jeffords' recent defection, maybe it is.) Amos Glick does a fine job of standing up to the abuse, remaining sunnily clueless throughout while still allowing the audience to shudder in fear as he says things like "achieviating," "assassinacize," and "a genetically engineered chicken in every pot!" Of course, he's really too busy practicing for the Bloodsucker's Ball to be that much of a threat. In art as in life, the real power behind the throne (or coffin, as the case may be) is the buttoned-down, quietly fearsome Dick Cheney, played with spine-tingling precision by Ed Holmes, a man so inherently funny that he gets a laugh just coming onstage dressed in a conservative suit.
Of course, 1600 Transylvania Avenue is preaching to the choir -- but if you're part of that choir, it's a very satisfying preachment indeed. Writers Michael Gene Sullivan and Ellen Callas have found a direct and funny way of revealing the dark side of the 14th Amendment. This amendment is famous for granting the victims of slavery the same rights as free individuals. What's less well-known is that there's a rider that gives corporations the same legal status and protections as individual citizens, making it possible for them to operate in a state of unaccountability.
Right after I saw 1600 Transylvania Avenue, I met author and former heir to the Baskin-Robbins fortune John Robbins, whose Diet for a New America revolutionized the way many people thought about food and how it gets onto our tables. Robbins, who walked away from his inheritance because he believed it to be blood money, was talking about how Monsanto and their ilk have been able to gain so much (figurative and literal) ground. "What are we supposed to do?" he said.
"Revoke the charter!" rejoins the Mime Troupe, alluding to the multinational corporation's weak spot, the constitutional charter that allows it the protections granted individual citizens. Revoke the charter, the Mime Troupe urges, and even the mightiest corporation would have to answer to the people. It's a weightier message than one would expect to get out of a frothy song-and-dance spectacle staged in the park on a sunny day, but Sullivan and Callas pull it off.
In terms of staging, the Mime Troupe proves once again that less can be more, a lot more. Conrad Cimarra's colorful set is wonderful, like the world's biggest pop-up book. Composed of hinged layers that fold up, down, or away as required to reveal the White House, Green Grrrl Enterprises, a hospital, or the inner sanctum of the bloodsuckers, it's a clever design that allows for efficient set changes without a lot of props or expensive machinery. Keiko Shimosato's costumes capture a little of the Victorian flavor of Stoker's original (especially Shamina's neck-baring ensemble) while furthering the story (poor Lucy's accumulated accoutrements as she is repeatedly pushed out of windows). The music is great, peppered -- no, doused -- with witty, spot-on sound effects.
The show is out just in time; in the opening number, as members of the press try to pin down the President on how exactly he plans to solve the country's pressing problems, he brings every answer around to "a great big -- TAX CUT!" This should hit home as folks find manila envelopes in their mail and wonder whether to spend their tax rebates, or send them straight to the nonprofit organization of choice (how about the Mime Troupe?). For forty years the Mime Troupe has proved that it's possible to get out a vital message about the state of the world and still have a good time, and 1600 Transylvania Avenue is a shining example.
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