The Divine Sister by Charles Busch. Directed by Billy Kimmel.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"I also cluck like a chicken."
Becoming a wily adult in New York City meant going to shows at the Theater of the Ridiculous and watching the divine Charles Ludlam, moustache dark and florid, parade around in a 19th century gown (his bare chest, hairy and visible) and become a devastating woman. He did it with flair and was never conceivably a drag queen about it. Flash forward two decades or more and meet Charles Busch, I did, an actual Ludlam-like playwright who - like his predecessor - wears gowns and acts like a woman. The difference is that Busch is a drag queen. So it follows that when his plays are done elsewhere a drag queen is necessary.
The big difference between the two Charleses is simple: Ludlam created illusion with flair and Busch flairs illusions through his medium. "The Divine Sister" is another Ludlam infested incarnation through the talents of Busch. Both men use the metaphors of film, theater and literature to create their new plays. Both play on the remarkably easy parodies of stars we can recognize, situations that are instantly familiar, lines that ping to the inner ear where our memories are stored. In this play, now at Stageworks Hudson, Busch is remarkably successful in creating a play that even works for the uninformed in spite of reference upon reference, familiar and somewhat less so. Even "Black Narcissus" takes center stage in this show that is alive with "Singing Nun" and "Sound of Music," "Anastasia" and "Bells of St. Maryís" references.
Steven Polito, also known as the drag queen Hedda Lettuce (her preference for green is legendary), takes the central Busch role of Susan, Mother Superior. Living with secrets she doesnít even know she has, Mother Superior has set a goal of creating a new Catholic school and convent to replace the decrepit one she heads, tearing down the old structure in the process. An abandoned orphan she herself lost a daughter out of wedlock. Her best friend Lily, Sister Acacious, also harbors deeply hurtful secrets and so does Sister Maria Walburga, Mrs. MacDuffie, Mrs. Levinson, Agnes, Timothy and Venerious, a monk who lives in the unexplored catacombs beneath Mother Superiorís convent in Pittsburgh, PA.
Only Jeremy has no secrets and thatís only because he has been out of the picture for 20 years. When he reenters Mother Superiorís life shit begins to hit fans and the various plots immediately thicken. The play is on.
Steven Polito is divine as the woman in the case, Mother Superior, Susan - girl reporter. With his Tallulah Bankhead laugh and his Bette Davis/Katherine Hepburn New England accent he pulls of most lines easily and makes us laugh at even the most banal thoughts expressed. In one scene he uses the phrase "cahnít face" and the running joke that pervades the rest of the show is the sexual expletive derived from Politoís deeply accented pronunciation. He lip-synchs a song while finger-synching his guitar and turns Debbie Reynolds into even more of a gay icon than she has been all these years. His dancing and his entrancing are at their best in the lengthy flashback when Susan and Jeremy, rival reporters, flash and flare and dynamically flush away their love affair.
As her best friend, Sister Acacius, Louise Pillai, all Bronx and nothing but, makes her nun into much more of a drag act than Polito does. Acacius is the wrestling coach at the school and that makes so much sense until she loses her mind and takes on the seduction sequence from "Black Narcissus" using every gimmick except the big brass bell and the high chaparral. She is a delight to watch and to listen to in this role.
Doug Trapp plays two men. He plays them as well as a man can in this play. Could he live up to the description of his characterís genitals, Jeremy would be a man to contend with. He does live up to that characterís hype, however, in the straightforward romance department. He is a wonderful addition to this company.
Molly Parker-Myers plays Mrs. Levinson with brilliant clarity and a perfect sincerity that makes her redemption, Helen Hayes-like, scene into a moment of hilarious wonder. She needs her own special applause for just pulling it off without cracking herself, or Steven Polito, up.
Amanda A. Lederer is a perfect Agnes. This odd clone of the curious "Agnes of God" is a self-declared Immaculate Conception and when that dream is altered by destiny she becomes an ideal image of Destinyís Child. Itís a hilarious transition.
Sarah Dacey Charles plays a German nun and an Irish cleaning woman with equal parts poise and clarity. In the first role part she is imposing and dangerous and in the second she is precise and clear if a bit punchy from the time spent playing her other role.
Director Billy Kimmel has a made a much larger mole hill out of the molehill of a play that Busch provides. This amalgam of other works is meant to be funny and it succeeds admirably even when it strains at credibility just a bit. Kimmel seems to know when to pull back, to let his actors remain a shade aloof from the material. Oddly, this works in the favor of the play. He has worked well with his designers, for the most part, particularly with costume designer Maureen Schell who has created just the right touch for the nunsí habits and ideal clothing for the rest of the castís roles. Phil Elman and Billy Kimmel collaborated on the sets and did a fine job although the time spent watching the set gave me a new perspective on the set designerís work. I was afraid that a heavy wall unit could come crashing down at any minute. Michael Porterís lighting design could use a refresher course to guide it. Interior and exterior, night and day, all looked pretty much the same. The catacombs scenes were well lit and did lend the right ambience to the visuals.
This show is, let me be clear, a funny show with a bit of heart and a lot of drag. Even the women playing nuns are in a sort of drag as they prance around the stage in their black and white penguin outfits practically becoming men pretending to be women. Having just a single drag queen in the show seems to have affected the choices of many women who want to be just as attractive as the man in the play is - as a woman. Itís all funny and has a happy ending, naturally, even if that is achieved through an impossible quirk the author has built into the play. Go for the fun of do it now, while you still can.
The Divine Sister plays at Stageworks Hudson, 41-A Cross Street, Hudson, NY through August 7. For information and tickets call the box office at 518-822-9667.