THEATER 2012: The Musical!, the San Francisco Mime Troupe’s latest offering in its annual free outdoor theater shows, opens in the Oval Office, where President Obama (Michael Gene Sullivan) — face painted a garish red, white, and blue — sells out Workingclass Man (Cory Censoprano) at the bidding of his spooky capitalist overlords. It plays like a parody of agitprop conceits and, sure enough, it is. Audiences sprawled on the glade at the northwest corner of Dolores Park this Fourth of July (the production tours throughout the summer and fall across the Bay Area and beyond) were being treated to the radical stylings of “Theater BAM!”, a tiny left-wing theater company fighting the good fight against the Man and the Pigs, among other stock characters in the black-and-blue pageant of industrial and postindustrial capitalism.
It earned a good laugh, this dramatic feint. The scene ends, the company takes its bow, and the “real” play begins as life imitates art with uncomfortable (and self-referential) complications: the members of Theater BAM! are indeed committed to overthrowing the system, but have been at it some time now with limited results and redundant gestures. Worse still, the company is facing an unprecedented financial crisis that has them leaning toward corporate sponsorship.
This last detail appalls at least one member, steadfast artistic director Elaine (Lizzie Calogero). But the rest of the company finds itself swayed by Elaine’s sister and fellow BAMmer, ambitious daytime corporate sellout Suze (Siobhan Marie Doherty), otherwise busy climbing the ladder as assistant to investment banker Arthur Rand (Victor Toman). (“It’s all dirty money,” she sings, in composer-lyricists Pat Moran and Bruce Barthol’s bouncy 1950s-style R&B. “If you don’t take dirty money you don’t have any money at all.”)
Rand, for his part, tired of competing with the piffling “people” in the political marketplace, gets the idea (with Suze’s prompting) to buy himself a politician outright. The serviceable Senator Pheaus (Sullivan) does nicely in this position (i.e., supine). Eagerly, desperately following Rand’s explicit instructions, the telegenic Pheaus pushes forward Wall Street’s business-as-usual agenda through a ready rhetorical smokescreen of nebulous and all-pervading fear.
Meanwhile, the stalwarts of Theater BAM! find themselves underwritten by an ostensibly progressive, feel-good corporation called Green Planet, Inc., headed by a bubbly Ms. Haverlock (Keiko Shimosato Carreiro) who, with hands clasped firmly on the purse strings, “offers” increasingly invasive production suggestions. The upshot? A new musical about the end of everything called 2012, replete with Mayan priests and giddy millennial mayhem. Needless to say, apocalypse doesn’t go so well with political commitment or revolutionary change, but dovetails quite nicely with an apolitical consumerist ethos of all now and damn the future.
Directed with reliable snap by SFMT vet Wilma Bonet (augmented by Victor Toman’s big-time small-stage choreography) 2012: The Musical! is a solid SFMT production attuned to the timber of the “end times,” not as a biblical prophesy but as capitalist conspiracy. It also flags the messy compromises made all too easily by artists and audiences alike with “the system.” The script (by longtime head writer Sullivan, with additional dialogue from Ellen Callas) is along the way dependably smart and funny — and seemingly inspired at least in part by the recent Flake flap (to wit, Congressman and Arizona Republican Jeff Flake’s attack on NEA chair Rocco Landesman last May for the NEA’s funding of the 52-year-old left-wing San Francisco Mime Troupe). The half a dozen songs are equally snazzy, with admirably clear and pointed lyrics, and while the singing is not as strong as in recent years, the comic acting is first-rate.
But if the story complicates the usual agitprop scenario represented by the fictitious Theater BAM!, it can also be too pat to be wholly satisfying. The excuse offered business as usual by the distracting and enervating fear of the millennium has several sources after all, including the pernicious hard-on by religious demagogues for spiritual redemption in a fiery end (a crowd and pathology wonderfully exposed in SFMT’s Godfellas). The solutions as presented here are also less than clear. Getting the airhead Senator Pheaus to save the day by reading a speech crafted by our heroes, instead of his Wall Street handlers, only underscores the idea that such “representatives” are ventriloquist dummies who lean left or right depending on whose forearm is up their ass. Those guys are Theater Bum, and they’re overfunded.
2012: THE MUSICAL!
Through Sept. 25
Various Bay Area venues, free