The San Francisco Mime Troupe returns to the East Bay this weekend for a series of free shows, starting this weekend with a couple of performances in Willard Park/Ho Chi Minh.
This latest Mime Troupe show, Doing Good, is an adaptation of John Perkin’s book Confessions of an Economic Hitman about the journeys of James, a big business economist and his work in under developed countries: the people he meets, the mega-construction projects he works on, the poor folks he wishes he could help.
Christian Cagigal is the actor who plays three of these poor third-world characters, or as he puts it, “the seemingly benign, little ethnic guys.” Chief among them is Farivar, the swinging all-American Iranian immigrant. At the opening of the show, young Farivar and James enjoy drinking cheap American beer together. Near the end, they meet again, this time in the Shaw’s Iran on the eve of the Islamic revolution there. James is there on business, to build big roads and grow the Iranian economy. Farivar has returned to his home and become a Muslim fundamentalist. He has a bit of wisdom to impart to his old friend about America’s place in the world and how “doing good” doesn’t always lead to doing good.
Each season since Sept. 11 2001, the Mime Troupe shows have portrayed a different theatrical response to the question of “why do they hate us?” Michael Gene Sullivan, Doing Good’s director, says that this show addresses the hidden history of the United States’ economic relationship with the rest of the world, a8 history that could go along way towards helping Americans understand why many in the “third” world don’t trust the U.S.
“It’s not necessarily all our fault, like some people rushed to say after 9/11, but on the other hand the people of the Middle East don’t hate us because we love freedom, that’s not it either,” Sullivan said. “There’s a history there and until we understand the history between the Middle East and Europe and the United States we can’t really have an intelligent conversation ... This anger has been building up against the United States for quite some time ... When you’re trying to figure out why someone hates you, don’t go to your best attributes and go: ‘They don’t like me because I’m so admirable. They hate me because I’m so handsome.’ We have a tendency to compliment ourselves. We mistake hatred for jealously, when sometimes they’re just pissed at us because of stuff we actually did.”
Sullivan is not just the show’s director; he also plays a few roles on stage, and was a writer in the Mime Troupe’s collective process. After developing the adaptation of the Perkins story, the entire cast got together around a big table to read together and then not long after, had the first rehearsal, or what Christian Cagigal calls “a large jam session.” That was back in May.
“It’s a bit crazy for anyone to think they can write a play in a couple months and then put it up,” Cagigal said. “It’s a rather masochistic idea, so for better or worse we have lots of cooks and we’re all trying really hard to make one really good soup.”
The actor who plays James, Noah James Butler, agrees that the collective process practiced by the Mime Troupe is a special challenge that makes working with this show unique.
“As an actor, I always want the playwright sitting right there so I can ask them, ‘What were you thinking when you wrote this? Can we make this change?’” he said. “The Mime Troupe process allows us to bounce ideas off each other and speak our minds.”
Butler went on to say that the Mime Troupe’s process is a great way to get a show up in front of the public.
“Having done a lot of underground theater, there are—how can I put this nicely—people with varying talent levels,” he said. “But with the Mime Troupe, everyone is on the same level. Working together. Contributing ideas. Everyone works really well together and it’s really a team effort. It’s what theater should be. Everyone has to unload the truck.”
The latest Mime Troupe show is a finished play, but it’s also a work in progress. From their opening performance on July 4 in San Francisco’s Dolores Park to the un-official end of the season on Labor Day weekend, the show is always evolving and being refined.
Although the farthest they will travel this summer is to the Central Valley to the south and Arcata to the north, the troupe has high hopes.
“I would love to take this to Nebraska or Ohio. Someplace where it might get people thinking about what’s going on,” said Butler. They are in the process of exploring their options to bring Doing Good to audiences outside of Northern California.
And while the Mime Troupe shows in the past have visited Europe, Asia, and South America, that sort of traveling production has become more difficult in these lean times. Be thankful that you live in these parts, where every summer (with our support) you can count on the Mime Troupe performing for free in a park near you.