Forget about the flowers in your hair. If you are going to San Francisco these days, you'll be needing a fat wallet so you can buy a pair of Google Glasses and fork over an average of $3,200 a month for rent in this city of startup wishes and IPO dreams.
And let's not even talk about the skyrocketing property values.
Funny stuff? It is to the San Francisco Mime Troupe, which has a field day with the ever-widening gap between the Bay Area haves and have-nots in its new show "Ripple Effect," opening Friday. A city once famed for hippies, dreamers and bohemians has evolved into the home of the global tech elite in this savage lampoon of the digital gold rush.
"The obscene gap in income between those who create the wealth, the workers, and those who live off the labor of others -- the bankers, investment capitalists, the owners -- has hit this area hard, but has been ravaging other parts of the country for decades," said actor/playwright Michael Gene Sullivan. "The real difference between the Bay Area and Detroit is that the new aristocracy wants to live here, and they don't see a problem with pushing everyone out of their way."
If that doesn't sound like the basis for a good belly laugh, then you don't know the Mime Troupe. Grounded in the rough and ready commedia dell'arte tradition, these left-wing pranksters see nothing odd about making a comedy about the war on the working poor.
The Mime Troupe is hardly alone in this approach. The company, about to launch its 55th season, is part of a Bay Area tradition of turning headlines and current events into punch lines, often from a decidedly left-leaning point of view. Performers ranging from the Latino political theater company Culture Clash to such news/pop culture-spoofing sketch comedy outfits as Killing My Lobster, Mission CTRL and Chardonnay (the last two operating under the PianoFight theater company umbrella) to well-known political stand-up comedian Will Durst have earned followers with their knack for mining laughs from hot-button issues, however serious they may be.
In the Mime Troupe's "Ripple Effect," which plays in various Bay Area parks through Sept. 1, economic forces wash over everyone. The story focuses on three dissimilar women who bond during a boat tour of San Francisco Bay. Meet commie activist Deborah Johnson (Velina Brown), immigrant-turned-super patriot Sunny Nguyen (Keiko Shimosato Carreiro) and small-town transplant Jeanine Adenauer (Lisa Hori-Garcia), a newbie techie who just got egged during a Google bus protest.
They butt heads over the rise of the nouveau riche, while uber Silicon Valley CEO Jerry (Sullivan plays this and other roles) hatches his own plot to ride the digital tide. Written by Sullivan, Tanya Shaffer and Eugenie Chan, this is a fast-paced musical farce about the rise of class warfare in America today.
"Anything is funny when you focus on the absurdity of it," Shaffer said. " It truly is absurd that a nation that has so much wealth is such a colossal failure at caring for all of its citizens.
"Laughter and tears aren't so far apart," she adds. "All you have to do is turn the dial a notch to see the comedy in anything, no matter how dark. It's tragicomedy, really, but I think finding the humor can help you keep some inner lightness in the face of despair."
Striking an explosive balance between political fire and gallows humor has been the troupe's stock and trade since its founding in 1959 by R.G. Davis. Famously described as all Marx (part Karl Marx and part Marx Brothers), this Tony-winning band of rabble-rousers has made its name rallying progressive audiences to the cause of the day.
"Mime Troupe has always done a great job of making people laugh for an hour, then taking that feeling of community that shared laughter creates and turning it around at the end with an action-oriented message," says Shaffer. "Shared laughter galvanizes people. It's energizing. ... You come away invigorated and perhaps angry, but ready to go to work."
In the past few years, the company has railed against Wall Street corruption in "Too Big to Fail." They mocked the 1 percent in "For the Greater Good, or the Last Election." In "Oil & Water," they explored the looming threat of ecological collapse. So it's hardly surprising that they would also poke fun at the stratification of class in a high-tech world. Indeed, experts at political comedy agree that you must strike while the iron is hot.
"The mission of the satirist is always urgent, but yes, never more than now," says Richard Montoya, who has made a career of political comedy as part of the Latino trio Culture Clash, and who wrote last year's immigration-themed comedy "The Ballad of Juan Jose," which was produced by Culture Clash and California Shakespeare Theater. "Humor is the ballast that helps you find the balance."
If most art soars on the depth of its fantasy, political satire is all about sharpening the knife of truth until the comedy cuts to the bone.
"The method of writing political comedy, for me, is very simple: dig really deep into an issue and get to its core of honesty," says playwright Christopher Chen, who wrote the Glickman-winning political parable "The Hundred Flowers Project." "The comedy equation can be boiled down to telling extreme truths with a straight face."
Channeling this catharsis into energy is the first step in recharging the Mime Troupe's audience, many of whom attend the summer show as a way of reaffirming their sense of community in a world beset by woes. Certainly the Bay Area has always been a pricey place to live, but in recent years, the costs of everything from housing to gasoline have risen to stratospheric levels.
"Sometimes, people can be overwhelmed by the issues and shut down,' Sullivan said. "Climate change, poverty, the erosion of our democracy, the entrenchment of our new aristocracy, average citizens can feel powerless and stop listening in situations where they feel they can't make a difference. But they can make a difference, and it is up to those of us with the opportunity to encourage involvement."
That's what separates the Mime Troupe from most political humorists. The objective here is not just to make you giggle but also to make you act. It's the spirit of democracy in action which is why the collective always launches its shows on the Fourth of July. This is musical theater as a patriotic act. If you believe in their cause, you can make a donation when they pass the hat. Or even better, you could make a phone call, send an email or resolve to vote. Apathy is the enemy, and wit is the secret weapon for the Mime Troupe.
"We're not trying to get people to laugh at the world problems," Sullivan said. "We're showing them how ridiculously easy it is to manipulate citizens into making bad choices, show them how ridiculously evil the opponents of justice are, and how much fun it would be to overthrow our would-be oppressors."
Conceived of and presented by the San Francisco Mime Troupe
When: Friday- Sept. 1
Where: Various Bay Area outdoor venues
(donations accepted), more information and
schedule is at www.sfmt.org
Song clips are downloadable here