Arts Listings

Mime Troupe’s ‘Too Big to Fail’

By Ken Bullock Special to the Planet
Thursday August 20, 2009 - 11:03:00 AM

Fish eat other fish ... and the big fish eat the little fish. It’s the biggest fish who eat last.  

That’s the gist of a production number by the San Francisco Mime Troupe, complete with fish hats, fish masks, fins, spinning parasols and the stroke of a canoe paddle, in Too Big to Fail, their storytelling parody of boom-and-bust capitalism, bubbling up everywhere, including a village in Africa, where usury begins with a goatherd wanting more than one goat—and winds up with the villagers up to their necks in consumerism, while our hero paddles to America, trying to straighten everything out with a visit to Wall Street. 

The kind of spectacle more familiar to Broadway or Hollywood—or theme parks—has been miniaturized, its apparent ideology reversed, and staged in municipal parks instead, a fun way to warn folks of the evils of the system.  

This weekend spells the last Berkeley outdoor appearances of the Mime Troupe and their excellent band (directed by Pat Moran) this summer, their 50th season, at Live Oak Park both Saturday and Sunday, plus the next Saturday at Mosswood Park at Broadway and MacArthur in Oakland, the final East Bay outing this year. 

Whether the “theme park” rife with song and dance is the village of Kanabeedomo, the open sea, or Lower Manhattan, the same perils lurk—and the same sense of humor prevails. The colorful denizens of the wave are swept up by a singing dancer in a shark suit, silver-gray outside—but when the cape-like outer garment’s opened, as a Vegas showgirl would, a bright magenta mouth opens up inside, lined with teeth, gathering up the smaller creatures. And a hardhat who renders some advice and assistance to querulous Filije, searching the streets of New York for the monstrous Kodo the Great, who holds his home village in its grip—turns out to be the monster himself, recognizable only when he drops his lunchpail and helmet and dons his business suit, uttering his credo: “Capitalism can work for the working class ... you, too, could be a member of the bourgeoisie!” 

And despite the villager’s homespun reluctance—“But everybody can’t be rich”—“Are you French?” the monster replies, and hires Filije on the spot, a company man now. 

Back on the, er, savannah (the set is a bit like a tiki lounge), the villagers taste the bitter fruits of the bust: “My titanium card!” “My plutonium card!” “My virtual farm is on fire! We were all so prosperous.” And the village witch who repped the monstrous global financier locally tries to get Filige’s woman burned at the stake, meeting her own it’s-about-timely end in a manner parodying The Wizard of Oz—to bring it back, for a second, to the Mime Troupe’s upside-down refraction of a movie musical. Filije takes over—but what’s left to take, and for whom? 

But everything straightens out and even compound interest is explained in a fabulous vein, with lots of rhyming slang, supposedly drawn from the West African griots, the splendid narrator dressed and looking the part. 

When it’s over, the griot introduces the cast: Velina Brown, B. W. Gonzalez, Ed Holmes, Lisa Hori-Garcia, Adrian Mejia and Michael Gene Sullivan (who penned Too Big to Fail with Ellen Callas), all directed by Wilma Bonet. And in time-honored Mime troupe fashion, they descend upon the crowd for gratuities as the griot intones: “What’s your Netflix budget? Dope budget? If you spend more on alcohol than you put in the bucket, you’ve got a problem!”—all the while directing fledgling consumers to The Mime Boutique, “Just like a mall/ But very small!” and reminding the crowd Bill Graham got his start with a benefit concert when the troupe got busted. 

But just as droll was the monoplane buzzing overhead, competing with a free show, trailing a banner from Geico: “The Money You Could Be Saving!” 



Presented by San Francisco Mime Troupe at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday (band starts at 1:30), outdoors at Live Oak Park. Free admission; donation requested.