“There’s no such thing as not political” is the rather loud mantra of the new show “Ripple Effect,” which played last weekend at Berkeley’s Cedar Rose Park. “Ripple Effect” is a production of the San Francisco Mime Troupe (mime, according to their website, in the sense that they “mimic” contemporary life), that is designed to explore how every action can cause (political) ripples. But even without such a politically minded title and refrain, the depth with which the show seems to believe this declaration is immensely, exceedingly and excruciatingly clear.
“Ripple Effect” is an original satirical musical, written by Bay Area-based Michael Gene Sullivan, Eugenie Chan and Tanya Shaffer with music and lyrics by Ira Marlowe. In its simplest form, this story centers around modern life in San Francisco as seen from the deck of the Bay tour boat, Distant Horizons. On this particular day, Distant Horizons captain and activist Deborah (Velina Brown) gives a tour to a young, nervous software engineer (Lisa Hori-Garcia) and a patriotic hairstylist named Sunny (Keiko Shimosato Carreiro). All three women come from very different backgrounds, but during their voyage they realize that their lives intersect in more ways than just across the deck of the ship, and they are forced to re-evaluate their role in the city they’ve made their home.
Enter the “political” aspect, and this becomes a story about how three sectors of society can come together to fight a new age of technology-driven capitalists, as depicted by the character “The Octopus” (Michael Gene Sullivan). Complementing this main issue are a few other political and social problems addressed in the show including the costs of elder care, environmental activism, the ethical boundaries of technology, immigrant rights, the current effects of the Vietnam War and the division between working and middle classes.
There is a longstanding, generally positive relationship between art, including theater, and political and social commentary. But the difference between this show and others like “Rent” or “Les Miserables” is the way politics are built into the structure of the story. The former stories take place in worlds that are influenced by political or social choices, which in turn influence the characters’ lives and stories in humorous and serious ways.
In “Ripple Effect,” the political issues seem to be inserted into the story one after the other, as if from a list, so that the audience has little time to contemplate the issues and their complexities before the next issue appears. Similarly, the characters, especially the four leads, are so boxed in by specific stereotypes that they are represented on the program by symbols rather than pictures, making the show feel more like propaganda than a politically charged musical.
At the same time, the actual performance and, ironically, the sound were excellent. Both the live jazz band and sound effects accompanying the story’s action were well-timed and well-executed.
The technical aspects, too, were exactly on point. Because the story featured nested mini-stories of each character’s life, each tale required a new set of characters, props and costumes without pauses between scenes. Neither actors nor crew ever faltered, despite the numerous character changes the actors made — the same four played all the characters — and the potential challenges of performing outside in a public park.
Sadly, the beauty of watching a musical in the park on a sunny day, the proficiency of the actors and crew and even the catchy song lyrics about working in a cubicle were fiercely overshadowed by the story’s overwrought fashion of making political statements. Instead of ripples, this show seems to have created an unnecessary undertow.
“Ripple Effect” will be playing for free at Bay Area parks and theaters from July through August.
Contact Anne Ferguson at [email protected].