Brothers and sisters, I am here to tell you that after a couple of disappointing summers, the San Francisco Mime Troupe is on its best form in years. With Godfellas, a side-splitting look at the narrowing separation between church and state, the troupe returns to all the things it does best singing, clowning, and raising hell as it lambastes demagogues who claim to know the will of heaven. This year Ed Holmes took a break from playing Dick Cheney to wrangle the show, and between his direction and a script helmed by Michael Gene Sullivan, Godfellas rocks like the tent revival that opens the story.
To the world, Reverend C.B. DeLove (an angelic Sullivan) is out to "reclaim California for God and honor 9/11." Decked out in a flowing blue choir robe, the reverend preaches against the "crack-smoking illegal lesbian abortion doctors who teach evolution to our children" and pushes for a constitutional amendment that mandates a national day of prayer. Such a day, he booms, will inspire God to protect America with a "faith shield" that sounds suspiciously like Reagan's SDI program. But secretly he's in cahoots with an "ecumenical syndicate," and their goals are not nearly so lofty. "I'm not working for Jesus; Jesus is working for me," DeLove gloats. "Tote that cross, boy." Standing against them are civics teacher and Thomas Paine fangirl Angela (Velina Brown, deliciously nerdy) and her friends. But are they really her friends, or will they betray her? And is it possible that she might fall to the dark side?
The timing is apt. Last month, Illinois Senator Barack Obama gave a speech where he suggested that the secular left needs to start using the language of faith in the political arena. The blogosphere, right and left, jumped all over him; he's been accused of pandering to the Christian right, of pandering to the godless left, trying to have it both ways, or practicing a deep deception in his drive to the White House. Whatever you think of the speech itself, his having made it illustrates the rising tension in America. Whether we're parsing the pledge or being told that God wants our boots on the ground in Iraq, religion is creeping into public life without adequate discussion.
While there's discussion here Angela doesn't go anywhere without a suitcase-size book of Paine's writings, from which she frequently declaims there's also a series of "Rock the Lord" revival meetings with Lisa Hori-Garcia playing a different opening act each time. At the first one she wears a huge wig and pleather chaps, and it just gets better from there, culminating in her rapping in front of Brown's Flygirl ("You wanna get with me, you gotta get with Jeeee-sus"). There's a thuggish nun (Victor Toman) and a budding romance between Angel and the equally nerdy Todd (Christian Cagigal). The details are richly local, down to Keiko Shimosato channeling famous San Francisco sign-carrying eccentric Frank Chu as she decries "Sky invaders with delta rays of doom." A Golden Gate Bridge worker carries a copy of How to Talk Down Jumpers for Dummies, and DeLove's reluctant minion solicits signatures from an ironing board set up on Haight Street. And that's all before Tom Paine himself shows up in disgust, with Jefferson right behind and ready to hit on our heroine.
Songs like "These Are the Times That Try Men's Souls" work lyrics like Survival is a form of resistance/your right to be comes with intrinsic responsibilities to rousing anthems and smoky tangos, and the costumes and set hark back to the outrageous visuals of 2001's 1600 Transylvania Avenue. While Godfellas may not put "God can kiss my black heinie" on everyone's lips this summer, it's a rollicking return to form for the Mime Troupe.
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