Cornholed Again

The San Francisco Mime Company is anything but silent in its presentation of Eating It, a political statement wrapped in cornhusk

Oct 3, 2001 at 4:00 am
On the heels of the opening of old-school agitprop musical The Cradle Will Rock comes a strong message from the new school of Brechtian theater in the form of a visit from the San Francisco Mime Troupe.

The troupe, which is not silent by any means (they say that "mime" refers to their talents as mimics, not silent clowns), swings through town on a Midwest tour to perform Eating It, their latest "political-satire musical-comedy," as head writer and actor Michael Sullivan refers to their shows.

Over the last 40 years, the defiant group has taken on Israeli-Palestinian relations, CIA involvement in the heroin trade during the Vietnam War, HMOs, homelessness, gentrification and dozens of other subjects, wrapping their liberal outrage in musical comedy. "What we try to do is take these issues and put them in a comic-enough situation that the audience opens their minds to them," explains Sullivan, "but not so comic that it appears we're making fun of their seriousness."

Their latest offering takes on genetically altered foods, and for the St. Louis stop on their Farm Belt tour, they've extended a special invitation to the show to Monsanto employees.

Supporters of the chemical giant and other potential audience members might want to know that the plot concerns a pair of scientists who've developed "Super Corn," a vegetable variety resistant to frost and disease. The corn also kills and replaces surrounding plants and pops and butters itself. (It brings to mind Little Shop of Horrors or Day of the Triffids.) On the verge of releasing another super-strain of bio-engineered plant, the scientists are visited by a strange man from the future, who warns them of the environmental catastrophes that can and did result from tinkering with Mother Nature.

Sullivan says that he and the other writer/activists in the troupe researched this topic extensively, and that solving problems of world hunger has less to do with improving plant life than with distributing food fairly. Besides, he adds, "these [biotech] companies are not in the business of making the world a better place or feeding the starving multitudes, they're in the business of making money... that's the basic problem with corporate-driven science."

The venerable troupe has made a name for itself by performing in public parks in California to audiences of thousands. To make these shows work, they often use immense props and cartoonishly stereotypical costumes, so the basics of their message are conveyed even to the folks in the cheapest seats. Though their St. Louis shows will be on a high-school stage, they will use props such as fake test tubes that are a foot long and "giant, evil corn," as well as their trademark traveling trap-door stage.

Most of the troupe's shows, says Sullivan, really revolve around a single issue: "Either you're a greedy bastard or you want to save the world."