Chicago Theatre Review
The Divine Sister – Hell in a Handbag
Charles Busch, actor, female impersonator, screenwriter and playwright, is a name synonymous with camp. He’s most famous for his Broadway comedy, “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife;” however, with Off-Off-Broadway and regional productions of such plays as “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom,” “Theodora, She-Bitch of Byzantium,” “Die Mommie Die!” and “Psycho Beach Party,” Mr. Busch has achieved fame as a theatrical writer of sinister innocence, harmless depravity, outrageous dialogue and awful puns.
Made to order for David Cerda’s irreverent production company, “The Divine Sister,” a 2010 comedy that had a successful run at New York’s SoHo Playhouse, is a satirical composite of all those Hollywood religion-based films, from “The Nun’s Story” to “The Sound of Music.” The parody mixes in characters and plot points from “Agnes of God,” “Black Narcissus,” “Doubt,” “The Trouble with Angels,” “The Da Vinci Code,” “The Bells of St. Mary’s,” “The Singing Nun,” “The Song of Bernadette” and almost every other movie that featured a holy sister. For a theater company dedicated to camp, parody and the art of over-the-top drag performance, this play fills the habit.
Artistic director David Cerda once again subtly steps into his Joan Crawford persona and dons the wimple as the Mother Superior of St. Veronica’s Convent School. It’s a building that’s desperately in need of much repair work, as are its occupants. Much like Roz Russell’s film roles, an actress whose presence seems to haunt this play, the Mother Superior also seems to have once been a topnotch news reporter named Susan. Events best left for audiences to discover for themselves complicate the backstory of this comedy, and inspire Susan to take the veil.
Other characters who inhabit this play, as well as the Convent School, include Sister Acacius, the masculine wrestling coach nun, played to befuddled impeccability by the always wonderful Ed Jones. Then there’s Agnes, the young postulant who hears voices, claims to have been conceived immaculately and possesses healing powers. She’s portrayed with joyous enthusiasm by a delightfully ditzy Charlotte Mae Ellison. As German transplant Sister Maria Walburga, Maria Stephens plays her with shrill, highly-pitched declamations that shatter the sound barrier. She also portrays an Irish cleaning lady, Mrs. MacDuffie, and is often difficult to understand in both roles. The neighboring atheist, Mrs. Levinson, as well as a gender-confused Convent student named Timmy, are both played by Chad. He’s been so brilliant in many of Cerda’s former productions and is once again just as wonderful in this play. Levi Holloway is especially terrific, both as sinister albino Brother Venerius and, particularly, as film producer Jeremy. All these characters, of course, harbor deep, dark secrets that are revealed within the final moments of this satire. And, rest assured, everyone lives happily-ever-after…well, almost everyone.
Shade Murray has directed his production with the same finesse he displayed in Red Orchid’s “The Mutilated.” The decision to stage this camp parody in an actual church was truly inspired, although the summer heat can be quite oppressive in this second floor chapel. Bring your Holy Water and a paper fan with you. Keith Ryan and Kate Setzer Kamphausen’s wig and costume designs are angelic and John Holt has added his own unique touch to create a versatile scenic design. Special mention must go to Chicago actress musical theatre actress, Rebecca Finnegan, for providing the lovely singing voice of the Mother Superior, making her “La La La Song” quite a hoot.
In typical Hell in a Handbag fashion, David Cerda’s performance dominates this production and sets the tone for this hilarious show. It’s not Shakespeare, nor is it the Bible, but it’s a fun-filled evening of camp theatre that celebrates all those religious films from Hollywood’s past. Outrageous characters, melodramatic acting, musical interludes that come at the drop of the hat and holy revelations abound in a play that’s simply just plain heavenly fun.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented June 4-July 10 by Hell in a Handbag Productions at Ebenezer Lutheran Church, 1650 W. Foster Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available at the venue, by calling 800-838-3006 or by going to www.handbagproductions.org.
Additional information about this and other fine area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com