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On a trip to the South a few months ago, I visited the Full Gospel Tabernacle Church in Memphis to hear the Rev. Al Green preach. Like about half the congregation, I was more interested in watching the R&B legend cavorting about in a clergyman's robes than in receiving Jesus into my heart. More than three hours later, I staggered out of God's house famished and bemused. Only a couple of things stood out from the experience: One, how the minister's preaching was no match for his singing; and two, how much my ass ached from sitting still for so long.
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I hadn't given my very temporary stint as a member of the Rev. Green's flock much thought until I saw the San Francisco Mime Troupe perform its new religious doctrine-themed show Godfellas. My memory wasn't simply jogged by the butt-numbing effort of perching on the precipitous slopes of Dolores Park; it was as if the troupe had kidnapped the Motown Messiah, pushed him on stage, and ordered him to bathe us in his holy, spiritual light.
This being San Francisco and the Mime Troupe, the light in question is revealed to be about as spiritual as a bottle of Jack Daniel's and as holy as a donut. Dressed in a pimpin' electric-blue suit, Godfellas' own hallelujah preacher, the Rev. De Love, is heaven-bent on spreading the word of God (or rather Go-oh-oh-d, in Michael Gene Sullivan's trembling Martin Luther King baritone) to every corner of the land. His intentions are far from benign. Behind the scenes at a "Rock the Lord Crusade" concert, Love and his dastardly gang of spiritual desperados Bishop O'Toole, Sister Jesusmaryjoseph, Rabbi Hymie Goldbergawitz, and a habitually absent Muslim leader ("Mullah Bala Ya Khumak could not join us today, as he was detained at the airport again") concoct a plan to rid the country once and for all of the tiresome separation of church and state. Or, rather, rid the country once and for all of the tiresome separation of church and "dat uddah thing" the s-word, to these God-squadders, is strictly taboo.
So far, so Mime Troupe, right? Maybe not. What struck me like a bolt from above was how wildly different Godfellas felt compared to other Mime Troupe efforts. Last year's sloppily conceived and boringly liberal Doing Good is a case in point. That production was less effective as an agitprop pamphlet against American intervention in the Third World than as a critique of the troupe's very existence.
Godfellas doesn't break new ground in creating a production about the ills of spiritual dogma. The play covers some of the same ideological territory as dramas like Arthur Miller's The Crucible and Liz Duffy Adams' One Big Lie. And certain moments, as when assorted religious nuts take to their soapboxes to compete for the public's attention, bring Monty Python's Life of Brian to mind. The production also feels long in places: Several scenes devoted to a seemingly endless talk-show debate between Love and his adversary from the opposing faction, Citizens for a God Free America, feel repetitive and contrived.
Yet Godfellas makes a virtue of the hackneyed theme of spiritual vice. The wisecracking text (co-written by Sullivan in collaboration with Jon Brooks, Eugenie Chan, and Christian Cagigal, who also acts) crackles with irreverence in the hands of the multifaceted ensemble cast. The pithy and well-integrated musical numbers are a fine example. As Love sings of his life as a profiteering missionary: "I'm not working for Jesus/ I got Jesus workin' for me." Meanwhile, a hilarious gangsta rap sequence, combining baggy-pants'ed posturing from the actors with hip-hop beats from the live band, is as ridiculous as it is arresting.
Of course, the religious right is an easy target for the Mime Troupe, and it takes only a line like "[God] listens when you make your phone calls" to elicit a loud chorus of boos from the crowd. But far from blandly reflecting the atheistic, left-wing mindset of its core audience, the team behind Godfellas manages, for a change, to make us think. For what begins as a diatribe against religion soon reveals itself to be a critique of blind faith in all its forms.
The company achieves this balance not only by showing spiritually skeptical liberals to be as prone to indoctrination as religious zealots, but also by peppering its social commentary with cartoonlike surrealism. Like the songs, the sudden appearance through a trapdoor of Thomas Paine and his contemporary, Thomas Jefferson, adds a wacky dimension to the maniacal proselytizing of the comedy's various holy nuts. As a result, the troupe delivers its message about dogma without being dogmatic.
Thinking back to my visit to the Full Gospel Tabernacle Church through the prism of Godfellas has thrown one other, slightly disturbing, fact into relief. At the time, Green's sermon meant little more to me than a trip to nearby Graceland an amusing diversion. I felt morally superior, smug even. But given that the church coffers that morning bulged with hundreds of dollars reaped in tithes from interlopers like me, it now seems that the Rev. Green had greater cause than I did to feel smug. Green was working for Jesus, but I was working for him.
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