The Divine Sister
Charles Busch's latest play is campy good fun, filled with wonderfully outsized performances.
The piece, which is definitely in the "Theatre of the Ridiculous" tradition, pays homage to a host of films (many involving nuns), ranging from Agnes of God to His Girl Friday. The action, set in 1968, unfolds at a Pittsburgh-based convent school called St. Veronica's, run by a politically conservative Mother Superior (played by Busch). Young postulant Agnes (Amy Rutberg) claims to see visions and possess healing powers, while the mistress of novices, Sister Acacius (Julie Halston), has her doubts -- and also holds the key to one of the primary mysteries surrounding the girl.
Meanwhile, new arrival Sister Walburga (Alison Fraser) possesses her own secrets -- one of which is that she is involved in a conspiracy that tips its hat to The Da Vinci Code. Added to the mix are wealthy widow Mrs. Levinson (Jennifer Van Dyck) and film scout (and former newspaper reporter) Jeremy (Jonathan Walker), whose ties to the convent's residents -- and particularly its Mother Superior -- are revealed as the play progresses.
While the plots and subplots are numerous, they're secondary to the outsized performances that make the show the comic gem that it is. Busch knows precisely how to modulate his voice for maximum comic effect, and his timing is impeccable. Halston is a stitch in every one of her appearances -- particularly Sister Acacius' mishearing of Mother Superior's question, "What is it you can't face?" (The scene itself is a sly reference to a segment in The Sound of Music).
Fraser is deliciously twisted as Sister Walburga, and also puts in a memorable appearance as an elderly charwoman. Rutberg gives new meaning to the phrase "wide-eyed innocent"; if she made her eyes grow any larger, they'd be sure to pop out of their sockets. Walker's got the rhythms of his smooth-talking former newspaperman down, while Van Dyck is not only on target as the prim Mrs. Levinson, but also does a hilarious turn as schoolboy Timothy.
B.T. Whitehill's scenic design -- with its bricks made of sponges and humorous faux-stained glass windows -- perfectly matches the style of the play. Costume designer Fabio Toblini also does fine work -- particularly in a flashback scene featuring Busch's character prior to her entry into the convent.