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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