Sunday, July 5, 2009

A Parable of Economic Crisis

The concept of parable has been around and in practice at least since the days of Aesop. It tends to serve two purposes. The first is to shine a new light on a confusing and problematic situation, thus making it more comprehensible. This is usually a matter of explaining things in terms of those listening to the parable, rather than in the terms of the situation itself, which tend to be the source of confusion in the first place. The second is to use the light of understanding to indicate a path towards resolving the problems brought on by the situation. The parable is the stock-in-trade of the agitprop vehicle of didactic drama and its subsequent influence on Bertolt Brecht's approach to epic theatre.

Epic theatre is alive and well in San Francisco, and the San Francisco Mime Troupe is one of his proudest vehicles. It is thus no surprise that this summer's production should use parables to take on the complexities and perplexities of the current economic crisis, delivered with outrageous humor and spectacle (and very little mime). The result, given its first performance (as always) on the Fourth of July, is Too Big to Fail; and it succeeds delightfully where just about all punditry gets bemired in its own rhetoric. In the past there has been a tendency for Mime Troupe productions to follow the Brechtian tradition of going on too long; but Too Big to Fail is one of the tightest of their productions that I have seen (and I have now lost count). Somewhat in the narrative framework of The Odyssey, parables about our economic crisis are delivered through one story of a great journey and another of what is happening back at the hero's home. Seemingly disconnected events, usually in the form of facile jokes, always get woven into the fabric of a bigger picture and never take too long to do so. When it threatens to get too involved in its own complexity, the narrative mocks itself and quickly returns to the direct delivery of parable.

After a repeat performance this afternoon in Dolores Park, the San Francisco Mime Troupe goes on the road, taking Too Big to Fail to a variety of venues around the Bay Area until the end of September. They have posted a Web page with their full schedule. Most of the performances are free, which means that there is a serious effort to "pass the hat" at the end of the show. This is important since, according to their statistics, those post-performance donations account for 22% of their budget. The schedule also identifies those performances that require tickets, along with information for obtaining them.

Too Big to Fail is basically a parable about paying more attention to Main Street than to Wall Street. The message just gets through more effectively that it has done from other sources. Perhaps that it because of the second role that the parables play. We come away with a better sense of what we can actually do to restore the focus of economic behavior to its rightful place. Power to the Mime Troupe!

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