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October 3, 2007

'Big Co.' at Boxcar Delivers Anticorporate Message for Free

A few weeks ago, a strange package arrived in my mailbox. It contained nothing but a copy of the September 2007 issue of Fast Company magazine. There was a yellow Post-It note attached to the front cover upon which the words "Note to self: Big companies are good!" had been written and self-consciously crossed out in blue felt-tip pen. Underneath was another phrase: "Look into this Werbach thing."

I read the Fast Company cover story about the controversial, San Francisco–based environmentalist Adam Werbach with interest. Within the space of a decade, Werbach went from becoming the youngest-ever national president of the Sierra Club at age 23 to helping Wal-Mart — one of the environmental movement's archnemeses — to develop its sustainability efforts. But it wasn't just that the article highlighted complex issues about the relationship between corporate America and the green movement. I was equally intrigued by the organization that sent me the magazine, Boxcar Theatre.

I was curious as to how a theater company as young as Boxcar had managed to make the leap from homelessness (staging productions in rented space and even, on one occasion, on a traveling bus) to moving into its own, permanent black-box space in SOMA. Not only that: Despite increased overheads, Boxcar insisted on performing for free. The contrast between this small business' financially perplexing strategy and the subject matter of its latest play — big business — seemed too great to ignore. I had to "look into this Boxcar thing."

Big Co. tells a familiar tale about corporate malfeasance. The plot juxtaposes two businesses — a tiny, family-run Russian deli, and the massive multinational corporation next door. As Nikolai Borísov and his sister Sonya struggle to makes ends meet and keep their customers satisfied in an increasingly hostile marketplace driven by Starbucks and McDonald's, the marketing director at Bhigge Company, Mr. Mann, strategizes about how best to fulfill his organization's corporate responsibility mandate while maintaining a staggering profit margin. Though Bhigge Company and the Borísov deli couldn't be more different as far as businesses go, they're linked in intimate ways. A flourishing romance between Mr. Mann and Sonya threatens to undermine the Borísov family's values and business. Meanwhile, an environmentally minded, anticorporate deli customer, Jenny Doh, accepts a job at Bhigge Company in the hopes of changing the greedy conglomerate from the inside.

This narrative has been immortalized many times in the past, from Joni Mitchell's 1970s folk rock song "Big Yellow Taxi" to Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott's 2004 documentary The Corporation. With its upfront messages and scenes loaded with Internet search engine–quality research, Big Co. feels at times like a college essay in theatrical form. It could also benefit from some dramaturgical honing in places. Using sound as more than atmosphere-enhancing background music, cutting out a few of the heavy-handed, non-argument-developing scenes such as a corporate training video and a tacky television game show, and ameliorating the terrible sight lines experienced by anyone sitting in the third row right side are just a few of the ways that Boxcar might improve the theatrical experience for its audiences. Yet Boxcar's heartfelt, humorous journey into the black soul of corporate America overcomes these relatively minor flaws. It inspires us to look at some of the problems inherent in the growing power of private enterprise with new eyes.

Big Co. takes the tradition of agitprop theater and gives it a twist. Like a Clifford Odets play or virtually anything by the San Francisco Mime Troupe, the show adopts a typically strong, anticorporate stance. But unlike many other dramas that fall under the theater-as-activism genre, Big Co.'s creators attempt to give us a more rounded vision, by showing us the downsides and upsides of big and small businesses alike. It's true that our sympathies lie with the Borísov deli throughout. With his endearing brown knitted cardigans and Bill Bryson-like frustrations at modern technology, Nick Olivero's sweetly gruff Nikolai is much more likeable than Peter Matthews' suit-wearing, latest-technological-gizmo-fetishizing Mr. Mann. Yet Nikolai's aspirations to provide unparalleled customer service suffer from the fact that he receives deliveries only once a week. For his part, Mr. Mann might be a slimy opportunist, but he offers to bail Sonya and her brother out of debt at one point. And everyone, regardless of how green they are, how much business savvy they have, and how much they believe in saving rather than squandering precious resources, throws money down the toilet. (Quite literally: One of the most prominent and incongruous features of Big Co.'s set is a household john.) Every now and again, one of the characters walks up to the white ceramic piece of furniture, empties his pockets, and tosses a couple of crumpled greenbacks into the bowl. The comically powerful visual image reminds us that waste is a universal habit — global corporations aren't the only guilty ones.

What's most interesting about Big Co. though, isn't the content of the show per se. It's what the show implies about Boxcar's position as a tiny business wheeling and dealing in a region with corporate giants such as Chevron, Hewlett-Packard, and Google that makes the boldest statement. From the moment you leave the trash-strewn and panhandler-addled sidewalks of SOMA and enter the company's new space on Natoma Street, you know you're dealing with an unusual kind of startup theater company. There's fresh paint on the walls. The building doesn't smell. Perhaps borrowing a trick or two from the Shotgun Players' approach to space across the bay at the Ashby Stage, Boxcar's lobby décor and theatrical set design offer a seamless, artistically coherent experience: The corporate theme permeates the space from the front door to the wings. Smarter still, the Fast Company magazine that I received in my mailbox the other day even makes its way into the play, when Dana Lau's Jenny picks up a copy of the September issue and bubbles with excitement at the cover story. Adam Werbach's beaming face on the front cover thus ingeniously serves as part of the artwork and a marketing tool. Boxcar might be a small nonprofit arts company, but someone over there is thinking like a board member of a Fortune 500 company.

At the same time, the experience of attending Big Co. couldn't be less corporate. Tickets to see the show are free, for a start. From the painstakingly reconstructed onstage deli complete with copious slices of homemade coconut cream pie (which audience members can sample before the show and during intermission) to the cast's delight in engaging with theatergoers after the performance is over, Big Co. has been created very much in the Small Co. spirit.

With its motto of "think small," the play might offer one or two insights into how an environmentally minded member of the public might go about undermining corporations' bottom lines to make the world a better place. But the mere fact that a company like Boxcar exists, has a home in San Francisco and produces this kind of work is living proof of the idea that we have more power over The Man than we think.



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