ITS NUNSENSE TIME AGAIN!
open season on Nuns again – first, the original long run 1998 Nunsense Off Broadway success, then the
fabulous fun version as last year’s Pines’ opus, which no doubt prompted another
off Broadway revival and now Whoopi Goldberg is bringing her musical Sister Act to Broadway this Spring.
My transition to the world of theater became easier when a frequent visitor to Fire Island, Charles Busch, the ultimate drag queen, parodied his way through his latest production The Divine Sister made more familiar as it brought back memories of last year’s Pines’ opus, Nunsense and Sondheim himself, the composer of this summer’s musical, Merrily We Role Along, was four seats way from me.
now Charles Busch, frequent persona on Fire Island, (who inspired one of my
best articles: “A
: a Panzi, a Rose
& a Busch”) is taking them all on in his newest hit. There’s just something
about those Nuns that is inspirational!
night I saw it Stephen Sondheim was in the house and Charles was kind enough to
remember when I interviewed him in his village apartment for the New York Law
so I feel it appropriate to publish Theaterscene’s review of his new hit, The Divine Sister
Since he is practically one of us.
Jeannie Lieberman, editor
Rutberg as Agnes and Charles Busch as Mother Superior
in a scene from holy outrageous comedy, The Divine Sister
credit: David Rodgers)
and female impersonator Charles Busch has been best when using his encyclopedic
knowledge of Hollywood movies to write
delicious stage parodies of various genres for himself
to star in. His recent plays have seemed to be out of his comfort zone.
However, his latest, The Divine Sister
which brings him back to the stage in the title role, is a hilarious return to
form and his early triumphs.
The Divine Sister, he gleefully
parodies, with tongue in cheek, the whole genre of movies concerning nuns, from
the 1940’s The Song of Bernadette, Bells of
St. Mary’s and Come to the Stable,
to the 1960’s The Sound of Music, The
Singing Nun and The Trouble with Angels, up to the more recent Agnes of God and Doubt. With a character from The
Lady Vanishes, and a plot device
from The Da Vinci Code, and piece of
business from The Exorcist, Busch
explodes the entire genre with all the force of a child kicking over sandcastles.
The Divine Sister is made up of
one-liners, puns, non sequiturs, quotes from pop culture, as well as visual and
aural gags, making this the equal of Busch’s most famous plays till now.
equally talented Carl Andress who has often helmed Busch’s plays before has collected
a cast well versed in the required campy style: Julie Halston whose association
with Busch goes back to Psycho Beach
Party, The Lady in Question and Red Scare on Sunset, Alison Fraser who
appeared in his musical The Green Heart,
Jennifer Van Dyck and Jonathan Walker who both worked with Andress and Busch in
The Third Story, and Amy Rutberg who played
an ingénue in Busch’s historical drama, Our
Leading Lady. Not only is it a reunion of old friends, but as an ensemble, they
work on of the same wave length.
during the social upheavals of the 1960’s, The
Divine Sister takes place at St. Veronica’s convent and grade school.
Mother Superior (played by Busch), a guitar-strumming, bicycle-riding reverend
mother, has her hands full with the financially strapped facility which is
falling down around her. She also must contend with a new postulant, the wide-eyed
orphan Agnes (Rutberg) who is getting a reputation for having saintly visions
and hearing heavenly voices. Not the least of her worries, the Mother House in Berlin has sent Sister
Walberga (Fraser) to investigate her request to tear down the existing building
and put up a new one. Serving as her tough sidekick is Sister Acacius
(Halston), the Mistress of Novices and wrestling coach, who represents the
voice of sanity in this overheated environment.
Halston as Sister Acacius and Alison Fraser as Sister Walburga
credit: David Rodgers)
Superior’s visit to the local millionairess, the elderly, cold and atheistic
Mrs. Levinson (Van Dyck), for a much needed contribution piques the curiosity
of her houseguest Jeremy Templeton, (Walker),
a former news reporter, now a film scout on the prowl to reach Agnes for the
rights to her story. Jeremy recognizes Mother Superior as the former Susan
Appleyard, girl reporter and his girl friend from 20 years ago. Before the
final curtain, the real identities of Mother Superior, Agnes, Sister Acacius
and Sister Walburga will be established and the convent and grade school will,
of course, be saved.
Mother Superior, Busch is a grand dame in the style of such film nuns as
Rosalind Russell, Greer Garson and Ingrid Bergman. Wearing lipstick, mascara
and sporting high-heeled shoes under her habit, Busch’s comic timing is
unequalled for the quick comeback and for stage aplomb. She is matched by the
performance of Halston as the bossy and verbally-deflating sidekick, Sister
Acacius, in a sort of Eve Arden role, that is if Eve
Arden had ever played a nun in sneakers. Halston’s role model is more likely
Agnes Moorhead’s sour-tongued Sister Cluny in The Singing Nun. Fraser has a grand time as the extremely Teutonic
and sinister Sister Walberga – who early on warns us she is not what she
appears to be.
Van Dyck and Walker play contrasting dual roles. Van Dyck demonstrates
versatility as the chic and elderly Mrs. Morris Levinson and then appears as Timothy,
the 12-year-old student who can’t get on the baseball team for being too fey. Walker plays his usual
role as the suave and boyish Jeremy but is almost unrecognizable as the
sinister albino monk, Brother Venerius. Rutberg appears type cast as the divinely
inspired Agnes, until the final scene transformation into her alter ego.
the show is as campy as the writing with scenic and graphic designer B.T.
Whitehill’s stained-glass windows of the Lord during the four seasons and the
pastel-colored brick work that appears to be made from sponges. Aside from the
required nuns’ habits, costume designer Fabio Toblini has been called upon for
everything from Mrs. Levinson’s Chanel suit to Mother Superior as hot-shot girl
reporter in flashback years before to the other characters’ multiples changes.
The various sixties style wigs are the work of Katherine Carr.
Charles Busch back in drag and in a parody of Hollywood
excesses that he has tailored for himself, The
Divine Sister is an inspired creation. Director Carl Andress, a past master
at this sort of camp, has surrounded Busch with performers who have long been
part of the official or unofficial Busch repertory company. With such talents
as Julie Halston, Alison Fraser, Amy Rutberg, Jennifer Van Dyck and Jonathan
Walker, you will be recalling The Divine
Sister’s outrageous humor for a long
time to come.
The Divine Sister (open run)
Playhouse, 15 Vandam Street
at Sixth Avenue,
tickets, call 212-352-3101 or http://www.SohoPlayhouse.come