Hipsters need to be acquainted with certain great ladies of the downtown scene–like Patti Smith, Karen Finley, Judith Malina, of course, the late Ellen Stewart, too–to be taken seriously below Fourteenth Street. Another stalwart to add to the list is Charles Busch, currently in nun’s habit at the Soho Playhouse in The Divine Sister, a virtually encyclopedic pastiche of all the nun’s stories you’ve ever known and hoped you’d forgotten. Popular culture embraced family entertainment featuring Catholics (The Bells of St. Mary’s, Lilies of the Field, The Trouble with Angels to name three) before cultural politics labeled them too conservative, too sexually conflicted, and too pro-life. You know all about the singing, flying, and prostrate nuns brought to us by Julie, Debbie, Sally, and Audrey—now they’re deconstructed, refurbished, and lip-synching (Busch’s flexing face muscles might even convince you this really is an art form). His script goes further too, although there’s no need to call the Vatican, positing the supposition that Christ really had a sister, marginalized throughout history, named Joyce. Busch, a master showman as well as "vintage drag queen," seems not so much concerned that you’re only watching him on stage (even if you can’t help it), but that you’re actually having a good time. He and the game, positive, energetic cast certainly seem to be having fun: Julie Halston, in an indestructible part, plays the Mary Wickes role (the basketball coach and bus driver who wears sneakers under her habit)—she’s, well, a joy. Alison Fraser, as a Teutonic nun, goes through most of the play with an accent so heavy you’ll probably have no idea what she’s saying—she’s perfect! In a show where just about every moment is a reference to some previous entertainment—even including the work of Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, and Alejandro Rey—you’ll be relieved to know that an amalgam of trash culture and religious iconography could have impacted anyone enough to make him want to grow up to be Rosalind Russell. Maybe because such stories seemed to say that one really could ultimately be good, you’ll be glad they did.
© 2011 by Bob Shuman
Charles Busch in
The Divine Sister
The Divine Sister is an outrageous comic homage to nearly every Hollywood film involving nuns, from The Song of Bernadette and The Bells of St. Mary’s to The Singing Nun and Agnes of God. The play tells the story of St. Veronica’s indomitable Mother Superior (Busch), who is determined to build a new school for her Pittsburgh convent. Along the way, she has to deal with a young postulant who is experiencing “visions,” sexual hysteria among her nuns, a sensitive schoolboy in need of mentoring, a mysterious nun visiting from the Mother House in Berlin and a former suitor intent on luring her away from her vows.
In addition to Busch, the off-Broadway production will feature the entire original company: Alison Fraser, Amy Rutberg, Jennifer Van Dyck, Jonathan Walker, and Julie Halston.
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