Sunday, January 16, 2011

Off Broadway: The Divine Sister

Charles Busch, the immensely talented playwright - whose credits range from Vampire Lesbians of Sodom (which ran for five years in the 1980s as one of the most successful plays in off Broadway history) to The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife (which ran on Broadway for 777 performances in 2000-2002 and received a 2001 Tony Award nomination for Best Play in the process) - has scored another resounding success with The Divine Sister, his delightfully zany latest production now playing at the Soho Playhouse. This wacky send-up of Hollywood’s classic nun films from The Song of Bernadette to The Singing Nun to Agnes of God (with side excursions along the way to “girl reporter” flicks, The Da Vinci Code, and James Bond movies) relates the tale of Mother Superior of St. Veronica’s school and convent (played in drag with politically incorrect abandon by Charles Busch himself) and her coterie of oddball denizens of that institution.

The presumptive plot of the play revolves around Mother Superior’s attempt to obtain funding from Mrs. Levinson (Jennifer van Dyck), a wealthy widow of Jewish descent and atheist convictions, to build a new school for the convent, but the play quickly devolves into a madcap vaudevillian romp featuring Sister Acacius (Julie Halston), the convent/school’s nun/wrestling coach; Sister Walburga (Alison Fraser), a visitor from the Mother House in Berlin whose behavior appears more typical of a dominatrix and assassin than a nun and whose off-the-wall feminist theology centers around the search for the remains of Joyce, Jesus’ little known sister; Jeremy (Jonathan Walker), who knew both Mother Superior and Sister Walburga in their earlier incarnations in the secular world before either had taken her vows; and Agnes (a role usually performed by Amy Rutberg, but played by her understudy, Marcie McGuigan, at the performance I attended), the postulant who sees visions, appears to exhibit stigmata and, just possibly, performs miracles of healing. Along the way, we also meet Timothy, an effete schoolboy (also played by Jennifer van Dyck); Mrs. MacDuffie (also played by Alison Fraser) ; and Brother Venerius (also played by Jonathan Walker). And we get to sort out the relationships among generations of interrelated lovers and their illegitimate offspring.

Busch is superb as the politically incorrect Mother Superior whose persona is reflected in her comment that “we are living in a time of great social change. We must do everything in our power to stop it,” and in the very title of her new book “The Middle Ages: So Bad?” But all of the other actors in this production are terrific as well, including Marcie McGuigan, the understudy in the role of Agnes. It is difficult for me to see how anyone could have improved on her role as she played it.

This is not a deep play and if you look to deconstruct it, searching for levels of meaning, you’re likely to be sadly disappointed. Rather it is just great fun – analogous to a day at the circus – and if you’re just looking for 90 minutes of hysterically funny – albeit crude and low brow - entertainment, here is where you’ll find it.

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