It was a beautiful, sunny, blue sky afternoon Saturday in Berkeley’s Cedar Rose Park when the Tony Award-winning San Francisco Mime Troupe opened the East Bay leg of its 38th annual season of free outdoor theater with a production of the company’s new musical play “Eating It,” a cautionary environmental science fiction tale about genetically modified agriculture, known in some circles as “frankenfood.”
“Eating It” is set 200 years in the future on a blighted earth where rich people live in protective domes and no one has seen the sun, sky or trees for years. Mother Earth has been destroyed by a genetically altered “supercorn” that got out of control, cross-pollinating with other plants to destroy the world’s biosystem and create a global wasteland.
“Eating It” addresses the conflict between using cutting-edge science and engineering to do good for people, but doing it in an overly hasty way that doesn’t allow a clear understanding of negative consequences that may exist down the road.
So when elderly supercorn designer Dr. Isaac Albright (Michael Gene Sullivan) gets a chance to travel back in time, he is able to reconsider his earlier invention of supercorn. Will he be able to change the future? You’ll have to go see the show.
The Mime Troupe’s all-Equity cast turns in the strong, satirical, broad commedia-type performances that the company is well-known for. The acting under Dan Chumley’s direction in this show seems especially strong.
Because this is the Mime Troupe, the politics are not subtle, and they are predictably P.C. Locally, the Mime Troupe tends to preach to the choir, and the company found an appreciative audience in the Berkeley crowd that turned out Saturday.
Time-traveling back to the year 2000, Dr. Albright finds his ambitious youthful self developing a supercorn to feed the world.
His staff is under pressure to make supercorn a financial success, because an earlier biotech project failed. That project was an attempt to combine cow genes and corn genes to create self-buttered corn.
Trying to avoid some of the negative associations that go along with the word “bio-engineering,” young Albright’s marketing people come up with the concept “neo-natural” to describe his new supercorn. In ads, they describe themselves as “people against starving children.”
Soon anti-biotech protesters take to the street. Two folk-singing Canadian corn farmers (Amos Glick and Victor Toman) sing a very funny song “Savin’ Seeds.” They ask why do they now have to pay for seeds that nature used to provide for free.
Riot cops bust up a protest outside an international food conference (referred to by protesters as an international greed conference). Remarks biotech CEO Bob Murtaugh (Ed Holmes), “Free speech. That’s why we invented tear gas.”
“Eating It” hits several different themes. It’s about cutting research corners for profit, with bad consequences down the road.
The play also debates whether you should make a product just because you have the technological and scientific knowledge and skill to do it.
The story is further complicated by the fact that the biotech entrepreneurs are black. And Albright’s wife and research partner Synthia (Velina Brown) is actually the smarter scientist of the two, doing the key creative work, although her husband is happy to take the credit for it.
Music is a great part of Mime Troupe shows and the actors all sing well. The show’s lyrics were written by Bruce Barthol, a Country Joe and the Fish alum and long-time Mime Troupe musician. The music is by Barthol and Jason Sherbundy.
A young Dr. Albright sings a heartfelt song about making it as a biotech entrepreneur, “This is My Time.” Battling anti-biotech forces in “Servant of Science,” Synthia sings of an opponent “I am Galileo and she is the Church.”
In “5 D’s,” Albright and biotech CEO Bob do a humorous rap about their marketing strategies.
And as always, the play is preceded by a half-hour of great jazz by the Mime Troupe Band (Sherbundy, Alex Budman and Mark Latimer). So arrive early!
“Eating It” plays at various outdoor locations throughout the Bay Area through Aug. 27. For schedule information, call 415-285-1717, or visit the web site (www.sfmt.org).