A major milestone for U.S. political theater, the San Francisco Mime Troupe’s 50th anniversary is marked by “Too Big to Fail,” a relatively minor addition to the annals of the company’s free annual park shows. As usual, script and production are likely to tone up during the ensuing weeks of Northern California tour stops. But at present this comic parable about the current global financial meltdown is just an amiable, rather than notably hilarious or barbed, demonstration of SFMT’s time-tested agitprop punch.
With a tip of the hat to West African Griot traditions, a playful storyteller (playwright Michael Gene Sullivan) serves as our guide, periodically interrupting the main narrative to relate shorter parables in which animal-kingdom follies echo mankind’s own.
Such digressions aside, main focus is on the odyssey of Filije (Adrian C. Mejia), who marries village sweetheart Jeneeha (Velina Brown) and receives a goat as dowry. Material ambition, however, makes him easy prey for an uninvited wedding guest (BW Gonzalez). Her curious gift is the “magic” of something called “credit,” with which he can immediately realize his dreams of more goats, a better home, etc. “Life can be so carefree and pleasant/When you live in the present,” the benefactress, a witchy old woman, trills.
Naturally, there are strings attached, like interest and hidden charges. Before he can say ouch, Filije is down one goat and in major debt. Spousal outrage drives him out on an epic journey seeking justice across the sea, where his invisible corporate captors live.
Meanwhile, the entire village falls under the woman’s “spell,” buying things they don’t need with money they don’t have. Suddenly huts are being mortgaged to the hilt, while crops and livestock are neglected for the new thrills of iPhone and Wii. Needless to say, when blind faith in credit-driven economics results in a crash, it’s the merged and monopolizing corporations that get bailed out, not the consumers they have lured into lifelong penury.
But rather than face their own greedy enabling of morally (and now literally) bankrupt institutions, the villagers blame the messenger: lone-voice-of-reason Jeneeha. They propose burning her at the stake to dispel the “bad magic” supposedly generated by her failure to “believe in the system,” whose marketing sway they remain under.
With a nod to “The Wizard of Oz” and other folkloric totems, “Too Big to Fail” sports frequent rhymed text and some witty strokes, as when Filije lands in a metropolis where the Demon of Privatization (Lisa Hori-Garcia) has made virtually everything a market commodity — even the air one breathes. Questioning this capitalism run amok, our hero is asked, “Why do you hate freedom?”
Yet the show’s concept never quite lifts off, with fanciful touches jostling against pedestrian men-in-suits villainy, unmemorable song interludes and a sluggish wrap-up that takes too long getting to the “Live within your means” message. Wilma Bonet’s direction and choreography are lively but lacking character; Emilica S. Beahm’s costumes rep the most distinctive design contrib.