Stage Review : A Mellowed 'Factwino' At Variety Arts Theatre
Dan Sullivan, Times Theater Critic
May 17, 1985
In this corner, the Moral Majority and the War Machine. In that corner, Factwino and one valiant branch librarian. That's the lineup in the San Francisco Mime Troupe's "FACTWINO: The Opera" at the Variety Arts Theatre, and there is no doubt which way the boo's and the yay's are supposed to fall.
But, as when watching Handsome Harry take on Murk the Turk on late-night wrestling, there is this tendency to root for the bad guy. One didn't feel this so strongly when watching earlier versions of the Mime Troupe's Factwino epic, which were no less clear about our need to thwart those dumb-dumb twin titans, War and Business, with a dose of straight thinking.
But "Factwino" set to music (don't worry: they haven't really made an opera out of it) seems a little smug. It is still the story of a wino who, unlike the Shadow, has the power to uncloud men's minds by giving them the facts about the defense budget, the abortion movement, nuclear winter, etc. And Shabaka still brings smiles as Factwino, the only superhero with wardrobe by Fruit of the Loom.
Unfortunately, our hero has also come down with a slight case of nobility. As I remember Factwino, he had a major problem staying off the Ripple. Now, although tempted, he stays stoically sober in the enemy's underground lair and they have to give him some kind of injection to get him to sell out. Please. I want a protagonist I can identify with.
Similarly, Audrey Smith's Spirit of Information (a bag lady) seems a mite less feisty than before, while Sharon Lockwood's overworked librarian has turned into a drag. We are supposed to identify with her frustration in the face of budget cuts and book-snitchers, but she comes off as one of those self-appointed martyrs whom you wish would do it somewhere else. One step more and her long-suffering sighs would be funny. Lockwood (who co-directed the show with Dan Chumley) might as well go all the way.
Lockwood's songs (by Bruce Barthol) are on the lugubrious side as well, as compared with the snappiness when one of the piece's villains is being sent up. As a general rule the new "Factwino" exacerbates the tendency of protest theater to be less theatrically alive when it's testifying for its cause than when it's trying to zap the enemies of its cause--or when it's simply showing people as they are.
We warm to Wilma Bonet, for instance, when she testifies, to a 1955 bubble-gum beat, that she is into partying with her boyfriend these days, not worrying about the end of the world. Or to Jack Monterey, another wino, who gauges how good a time he had last night by how big his head feels in the morning.
Or to Lockwood and Chumley as prim, polyester tourists looking for their gay son in that cesspool of depravity, San Francisco. Or to Bruce Barthol as a gangling student from Reliable Bible College, who can't stop smiling because it feels so gosh-darned good to be saved!
I even found it in my heart to enjoy Chumley's Jerry Falwell, with his jaunty certainty that the Commies and the Devil were the same Entity. That's about as subtle as the Mime Troupe's image of Factwino's prime foe, Armageddonman, presented as a two-headed klutz ("War" and his brother "Business") in a "Star Wars" suit. It's Tweedledee and Tweedledum crossed with Gog and Magog.
The destructive duo (Chumley and Barthol) also employ a brisk woman-warrior robot (Bonet), who disintegrates spectacularly when the forces of truth are unleashed, her tapes jamming at 'Not tonight, I have a headache."
A bit sexist, that. But one laughs at the irreverence, a reminder that the Mime Troupe isn't trying to be sanctimonious, just trying to point, with humor, to some connections that the viewer may not have thought about--to the connection between punk nihilism and apocalyptic fundamentalism, for instance. "Factwino: The Opera" does that kind of thing well. It's when it gets righteous that you start to look at your watch.