Nunsense, book, lyrics and music by Dan Goggin. Directed by Louis B. Crocco.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"...potential to become a Saint."
There are five women in Chatham, New York, who have the potential to become a Saint and not one of them will see canonization in the near future. These are the five women portraying the Little Sisters of Hoboken in the musical "Nunsense" which occupies the stage at the MacHaydn Theater, it’s first new show of the season. The plot is straightforward: Sister Julia, Child of God, has accidentally bumped off fifty-two of the sisters with her new recipe for vichyssoise. Five of those remaining are putting on a variety show to raise the money to complete the burial procedures and get the last nuns out of the deep freezer in the convent kitchen. During the benefit performance more happens that might be anticipated. There’s the nutshell.
Now for the nut. Sister Mary Amnesia, and her puppet pal Sister Mary Annette, discovers the secret buried within her failing memory. Sister Mary Leo rediscovers the glories of ballet. Sister Mary Hubert unfurls her inner gospel choir. Sister Robert Anne gets her solo turn without realizing that her entire life has been just that. Mother Mary Regina lives up to her name while living down to the level of the outside world. Much of this happens without a musical number, but it is in those special sung and danced moments that this show takes on its life and liveliness.
Dan Goggin has created caricatures that quickly develop into realities. At least in the hands of the very talented company that this company is offering in this show they are real women and not just some man’s idea of what nuns would be like in this situation. Amnesia, for example, in the capable hands and feet and voice(s) of Rhnea Wright Ausmus, is a delectable spectacle. Whether playing out a bizarre duet with Mary Annette or staring longingly into some other-worldly space where an angel is rumored to be hanging out, Ausmus plays with levels of reality that truly challenge the audience to question this woman’s hold on what is real. This is a truly brilliant creation, moving far beyond the fabulous original work of the actress for whom Goggins wrote the role, Semina De Laurentis.
Tamar Smithers as Hubert brings a solid if silly solemnity to the proceedings and her final breakout moment in the song "Holier Than Thou" is thrilling. Making her local debut she makes a definite impression that hopefully will produce further work at the Mac.
The inanity and the sweetness of Mary Leo meet joyously in the middle of the most expressive face that tops the agile body of Malerie Jo. There is a major talent looming here and a better, more focal role in her future may show us something really wonderful.
Silva Mateosian makes Robert Anne into a lighter, more feminine sort than is usually seen in this role. Sharp, butch, Brooklyn all the way, Robert Anne is the tough cookie that no amount of discriminatory behavior can alter. She possesses an optimism that is hard to convey in a role that is so maligned, but Mateosian makes her both a likeable character and a sympathetic one. When she ultimately achieves the spotlight she uses it for second-rate impressions that in this actress’s simple presentation are actually outrageously funny.
However the woman who holds this ship together and keeps it from sinking into pure parody (and who also may be holding the theater together but that’s mere speculation) is Monica M. Wemitt. The woman has never been funnier. In this role, as a woman who retains water and offers leadership at the convent, she matches her colleagues ego for ego, complaint for complaint, talent for talent and, finally, in a fall-down, laff-riot mode she allows mood enhancer drugs to drag her off a stage that is shaking from a house full of outrageous jokes and their kid-like reactions.
Wemitt could occasionally take things further but she wisely withholds a few abilities and moments, unleashing them only when necessary and achieving the full effect. She is better than Rue McClannahan, better than Marilyn Farina in the original role.
Louis B. Crocco does an outstanding job directing this show and he has fun help from Andy Geary who choreographed the ladies in black and white. He also has a cast who seem born to be in his production at this time.
Kevin Gleason’s functional set design is great - doing what it needs to do and never becoming a threat to the safety of the players. Andrew Gmoser’s lighting is just what the show needs while Jimm Halliday’s costumes are well-wrought but nothing special - they are nun’s habits after all, but his use of multiple functionality is lightly done and nicely, too.
Josh D. Smith handles the musical chores well with his small crew consisting of Joe Ulmer on drums and Andrew Kreigh as assistant musical director.
The MacHaydn Theatre makes a grand entrance into the summer scene with this show. I’d say, if it sells, cancel the balance of the season and just run this. You can’t lose. God is with you and those nuns in the freezer.
Rhnea Wright Ausmus; photo provided
Silva Mateosian; photo provided
Monica M. Wemitt; photo provided
Nunsense runs through June 3 at the MacHaydn Theatre, located on Route 203 just north of Chatham, New York. For information and tickets try the box office at 518-392-9292.