Al Fresco Theater Picks: Mime Troupe, Cal Shakes

by Jean Schiffman

A provocative political work or classical theater—we recommend both.

San Francisco Mime Troupe

Longtime San Francisco Mime Troupe playwright, director and actor Michael Gene Sullivan was inspired to write “Schooled”—a satirical musical that opens in San Francisco July 4 at Dolores Park and performs free at various Northern California parks throughout the summer—partly by Charles Dickens’ “Hard Times,” in which 19th-century England is seen as a “factory machine,” a nation obsessed with profit-making. Sullivan and his compatriots see a parallel situation today: privatization schemes run amok. Specifically, they see a school system that is more about preparing students to be obedient workers than to be free-thinking citizens.

“We’ve talked about doing a show on education for some time,” explains Sullivan. “People kept saying, ‘What is the Mime Troupe going to do about the election?’ But everybody’s doing that.” Instead, the 10 members of the collective agreed that a play about an endangered educational system could spoof the presidential candidates while making some serious points about the future of the next generation.

So Sullivan and co-writer Eu-genie Chan invented Eleanor Roosevelt High School, a test model for privatization, where a divisive school board election is underway.

The characters are comically familiar: A white-wigged, elderly teacher (played by Keiko Shimosato Carreiro) who has clear ideas about American government as it’s meant to be, and is cranky and annoying but “freakishly passionate,” says Sullivan.

A mother, Lavinia (Velina Brown), who is adamant about focusing on how the schools are serving kids in a modern economy, and who feels entitled to be the new school board president because she’d been appointed secretary by the outgoing board president. Her son (Rotimi Agbabiaka) is an ordinary kid who wants nothing more than to have
his own YouTube channel (although Mom has higher aspirations for him).

The (male) CEO of a corporation (Lisa Hori-Garcia, presumably with an outlandish comb-over) is working on the school’s privatization process—school is about learning to be good workers, he believes—and is running against Lavinia for president.

Others include a cheerleader (Brown again), whose cheers become increasingly violent (for example, “Just kill them all, that kind of thing,” says Brown).

Although the play uses the educational system to mock (and criticize) the entire concept of privatization of government, education itself is an issue close to the hearts of various Troupe members. Brown and Sullivan have a son in a public-school seventh grade in the city who, says Sullivan, should be having classes in history and civics by now, but is not. Carreiro, whose son is in high school, teaches at public and charter schools and sees schools going toward the corporate model: product oriented. She is concerned about what she calls “the gradual hemorrhaging” of arts programs in the regular curriculum.

“My job is to make all that funny,” says Sullivan. Songs (by Ira Marlowe) are part of the mix. Sullivan says in terms of design, he wants the feel of the Fritz Lang film “Metropolis”—he envisions the set (by Jay Lasnik) as old-fashioned storybook style, but one that gets ugly and twisted at various points. “For me, so much of what I write for the Mime Troupe comes down to Charlie Chaplin caught in
the gears of the machine in the first part of ‘Modern Times,’” he observes.
“The comedy is always about watching the person contort to try and fit into this mold, and how others deal with it, and are they ever going to realize they’re completely contorted?

“We have to decide each time: do we want to act like another part of the machine? Or do we fight against the machine and make it human?”

July 4 - Sept. 5

Various parks

California Shakespeare Theater

After opening its 42nd summer season with a gender-bending production of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” Cal Shakes continues, under new artistic director Eric Ting, with August Wilson’s “Fences,” George Bernard Shaw’s “You Never Can Tell” and “Othello.”

The Obie Award-winning Ting, who took over for departing artistic director Jonathan Moscone in November, comes with an impressive background in new plays. He has helmed the works of such high-profile theater artists as Anna Deavere Smith, and directed at major theaters including Manhattan Theatre Club, the Goodman Theatre and the Public Theatre. A multiple-grant recipient, he was associate artistic director at the Long Wharf Theatre, has directed abroad and is known, among other credits, for setting a production of “Macbeth” in the Vietnam War era.

So why would a new-plays aficionado want to run a Shakespeare theater? “I believe there’s a place where art can feed into urgent issues,” Ting declares. “What better place than classical theater? With new plays it’s easier to engage with current events. It’s a greater challenge with classical theater, but when you achieve it, it’s a greater reward. It
captures timeless truths from centuries past to the present moment.”

Although Moscone selected the first three plays of this summer season before leaving his post, Ting chose “Fences,” which he will direct. “To put Wilson on the same stage as Shakespeare—what an incredible statement!” he says, adding that both plays deal with what it means to be a black man in a white world. “In ‘Fences,’ set in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, Troy Maxson wrestles with what it means to be black in America in the 1950s. Othello is an outsider making compromises to belong to this new society. I was struck with the resonances between the two plays, with the archetype of the black man.”

But, he continues, “The outsider today is . . . the Muslim man. So our Othello is a black Muslim man.” Aldo Billingslea plays both Othello and Troy, the baseball player-turned-sanitation worker in “Fences”—a larger-than-life character whose struggles affect his entire family. Raelle Myrick-Hodges, former artistic director of Brava Theater, directs, and, says Ting, intends to put special focus on Troy’s wife, Rose (played by Margo Hall).

In the deliciously witty “You Never Can Tell,” George Bernard Shaw wrote an emphasis on women right into the script, as usual. Mrs. Clandon (Elizabeth Carter) has returned to England, after an extended period abroad, with her three children. Through a tangled set of circumstances, the children’s mysterious missing father appears at a family lunch. At the same time, the new family dentist has fallen in love at first sight with Mrs. Clandon’s oldest daughter, Gloria (Sabina Zuniga Varela). For her part, Gloria, a feminist like her mother, declares she will never marry. A preternaturally wise and wily waiter (Danny Scheie) stage-manages, so to speak, the ensuing chaos.

Lisa Peterson, a nationally known director and regular at Cal Shakes, has been working her way through the Shaw canon but has never directed this play. “She’s always trying to shake the dust off drawing room comedy,” remarks Ting, “so she’s translating it to the Bay Area—shifting some of the geography and dialect but keeping it in the same time period.” The set, he says, looks like a boardwalk with a roller coaster in the background, vaguely Dada-esque.

Of classical theater, he posits a question: “Are we a museum or a theater? Theater is an ephemeral art form…It’s always had the ability to respond to and reflect back the world.” Thus it has a responsibility, he asserts, to “engage in discourse with the world around us—to not be an act of preservation but an act of revelation.”


July 9 - 31

“You Never Can Tell”

Aug. 13 - Sept. 4


Sept. 17 - Oct. 9

Bruns Memorial Amphitheater

100 California Shakespeare
Theater Way, Orinda