Imagine there’s no heaven

Pub date July 11, 2006
WriterRobert Avila
SectionArts & CultureSectionStage

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A constitutional amendment mandating a national day of prayer? If such a proposal remains fictitious (for the moment), it hardly stretches the imagination. For these are the times that try a civic teacher’s soul and, not incidentally, call forth from the venerable San Francisco Mime Troupe one of its best efforts in years.
The world premiere of SFMT’s teeth-baring musical comedy, GodFellas — this year’s free agitprop in the park — tells the story of Angela Franklin (Velina Brown), a mild-mannered public school civics teacher with a thing for Tom Paine, who becomes the leader of a mass movement to save secular democracy from God-wielding gangsters grown fat on the church-state-mingling scam that is the Bush junta’s faith-based initiative, now pushing a theocratic Prayer Day Amendment.
Fronted by a suave evangelist named the Reverend C.B. De Love (Michael Gene Sullivan), the “Syndicate” is in the process of soaking up federal dollars, trampling the separation clause, and shoring up its political power while expanding the totalitarian reach of its Beltway allies. Our first glimpse of this outfit comes in the opening scene’s staged concert, the Ministry of Rock. Christian headbangers preaching with power chords (and amusingly outfitted by costume designer and actor Keiko Shimosato) soon introduce the headline act. “For everything I got, I wanna thank J.C.,” croons De Love to a jaunty rock-blues beat. “But I’m not working for Jesus. Got Jesus workin’ for me.”
Of course, where the art of rhetorical persuasion and the channels of popular culture fail, the Syndicate is ready to call in its muscle — a burly nun with a Bronx accent and five o’clock shadow, Sister Jesus Mary Joseph (Victor Toman). It’s in this holy spirit that the Syndicate comes knocking down the door of Angela’s Center for Extended Studies, a place, she says, for teaching all subjects that have been cut from the curriculum. Angela founded the Center with her liberal-minded colleague Todd (Christian Cagigal), a good-natured if sexually repressed Catholic-school art teacher and her shy love interest (his wild side is suggested, in a typical instance, by the donning of his “adventure cardigan”). Together they’ve been keeping the flame of critical thinking alive, in addition to fanning a smoldering flirtation (you know, involving lewd inflections of lines from the Federalist Papers and the like).
As the Syndicate muscles in on their operation, they retreat to separate camps, Todd capituutf8g to the new bosses in order to continue teaching and Angela heading for the Golden Gate Bridge. There, an epiphany of a decidedly secular nature convinces her to fight back, winning her first recruits from among passersby. As Angela takes on the forces of theocracy, the seduction of politics and mass media threatens to make her secular movement as dogmatic as the Syndicate. All of which brings home the message that democratic societies function under a popular regime of critical thinking and die under regimes of blind faith.
If the play itself sounds a little like a civics lesson, it is. But it’s one that goes down like a sweet, melodious riot of sharp comedy and contagious song — a combination that is ultimately a highly effective framework for the play’s ample citations of Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, clarion lines that give the lie to the insatiable authoritarianism, religious and otherwise, that cloaks itself in the flag. Despite its essentially familiar formula, all elements of the production — from Bruce Barthol’s skillful and imaginative score to the great performances under the astute direction of SFMT veteran Ed Holmes, to the finely honed script by Sullivan and collaborators Jon Brooks, Eugenie Chan, and Christian Cagigal (Tom Paine should probably get a writing credit too) — smoothly come together to make GodFellas an inspired and genuinely stirring piece of political theater, not to mention an invigorating dose of common sense. SFBG
Through Oct. 1 around the Bay Area
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Peacock Meadow
JFK Drive between McLaren Lodge
and Conservatory, Golden Gate Park, SF
Sun/16, 2 p.m.
Lakeside Park
Lakeside Drive at Lake Merritt, Oakl.
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