When British-raised Lizzie Calogero first moved to the Bay Area in 1994, one of the first things she did was catch a performance by the venerable San Francisco Mime Troupe in Dolores Park. Calling it one of her foundational San Francisco experiences, she's been a fan ever since.
"I've always been excited by the idea of theater that happens in public places, about issues that matter to the regular people," she said. A veteran of several past shows with the troupe, this year, she's starring in "Treasure Island," which returns to Palo Alto's Cubberley Amphitheatre for a performance on Aug. 7 (it first appeared there July 10).
The Tony Award-winning, unapologetically left-leaning, politically savvy theater company -- celebrating its 60th anniversary this year -- performs free, original musical comedies at parks and other outdoor spaces throughout the Bay Area each summer.
"Treasure Island," very loosely based on the classic Robert Louis Stevenson novel, tells the story of greedy developers -- "pirates!" -- in San Francisco and one idealistic civil servant's attempt to thwart them.
The adaptation was written by Michael Gene Sullivan, with Ellen Callas and Marie Cartier. Sullivan, who also performs in the show, is a familiar face to local theater lovers, not only from his frequent work with SF Mime Troupe but also his performances with TheatreWorks Silicon Valley (he also wrote the well-regarded adaptation of George Orwell's "1984" recently staged in Los Altos).
Calogero plays naive London expat Jill Hawkins, an earnest San Francisco deputy director of housing and development. She dreams of helping make her district a place where regular people from all walks of life can afford to live (rather than just "be alive" in) and faces off with developers who claim to offer "affordable housing" when really what they're after is building lucrative, high-end condominiums and snapping up prime real estate locations. When a mysterious pirate tips her off about nefarious development plans for Treasure Island, which falls within her district, she heads out to the dilapidated former military base -- armed with a top-secret thumb drive -- on a quest for truth and justice. Singing, dancing, pirate-based humor and swashbuckling also ensue.
The show's themes of gentrification, lack of affordable housing and developer-tied politicians no doubt resonate deeply in the Bay Area, including in Palo Alto. For Calogero, it hits close to home.
"So many of my artist friends have had to move out or give up their art because they can't afford to live here and be an artist. My daughter's favorite teacher had to move to Sacramento," she said. "My husband has a Ph.D in city planning, so I hear a lot about this stuff at home. Housing is his issue, the thing he's most passionate about, and he's spent a couple of years designing public housing so I feel like I'm around it even when I'm not in a show about it."
Though the issues are serious, the play is most assuredly a zany, satirical musical comedy. The music, by Michael Bello, with lyrics by Daniel Savio (son of the late free speech activist Mario Savio), includes some songs, as befitting the theme, with a sea-shanty flavor and are performed with a three-piece live band -- including a hurdy-gurdy .
Calogero's personal highlight has been engaging in some spirited, choreographed sword-fighting.
"I'd never been in a full-on sword fight. I look forward to that every single time we do it," she said, laughing. "I hope everyone gets to see my fighting!"
What: San Francisco Mime Troupe's "Treasure Island."
Where: Cubberley Amphitheatre, 4000 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.
When: Wednesday, Aug. 7, at 7 p.m. (music starts at 6:30).
Cost: Free; donations solicited.
Info: SF Mime Troupe.