Review: “The Divine Sister” (Hell in a Handbag Productions)

Charlotte Mae Ellison, Maria Stephens, Levi Holloway, Ed Jones, David Cerda, Chad: Photo: Rick Aguilar Studios.
Charlotte Mae Ellison, Maria Stephens, Levi Holloway, Ed Jones, David Cerda, Chad: Photo: Rick Aguilar Studios.

Show: “The Divine Sister”

Company: Hell in a Handbag Productions

Venue: Ebenezer Lutheran Church (1650 W Foster Ave)

Die Roll: 2

Religious visions. Forbidden love. Crises of faith. None of these subjects generally invite guffaws aplenty, but when playwright Charles Busch tackles nuns and the Hollywood dramas that wallow in their spiritual conflicts, serious topics become utterly ridiculous. Hell in a Handbag Productions’ of his play “The Divine Sister” excites when at its most melodramatic, and suffers when the lack of clear comedic targets is apparent.

The Mother Superior (David Cerda) of St. Veronica’s School has a lot of problems on her plate. Her best friend and fellow nun Sister Acacius (Ed Jones) struggles to believe in God while trolling for dates at the adjacent convent. The order’s newest postulate, Agnes (Charlotte Mae Ellison), bothers everyone with incessant religious visions, culminating in a ketchup stigmata. Her old flame Jeremy (Levi Holloway) has arrived in town with an eye towards winning back his lady love, and making a movie about Agnes. And the Mother Superior cannot convince wealthy atheist Mrs. Levinson (Chad) to fund upkeep at her institution. Meanwhile, Berlin transplant Sister Walburga (Rachel Hadlock) is hatching secret plans to undermine the school renovations by exhuming a long-forgotten body from the basement.

Busch provides enough plot here for five plays, but he fails to elicit comic frenzy as the storylines crash into one other. Camp is a difficult style to master, though he has excelled at dramatic artifice in the past with “The Mystery of Irma Vep” and “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom.” But slack pacing and confusion emerge when those being sent up are tied into such a specific set of tropes. Of course, there needs to be a scene where nuns compose a nonsense song, because that happened in “The Sound of Music.” Sure, there should be a sequence where Sister Acacius has a nervous breakdown, and smears red lipstick all over her face, as another emotionally frayed nun did in the haunting “Black Narcissus.” But are nun movies really a genre worthy of such take-downs? Are there really that many similarities between murder mystery “The Name of the Rose” and psychological study “A Nun’s Story,” for example? Busch’s script spends a lot of time on in-jokes that the majority of audience members may not even understand, given the wide range of possible familiarity with nun material. And because his comedy revolves around only a handful of movies, engagement in the silly plot evaporates far more quickly than it should.

Charlotte Mae Ellison and David Cerda/Photo: Rick Aguilar Studios.
Charlotte Mae Ellison and David Cerda/Photo: Rick Aguilar Studios.

Director Shade Murray injects a lot of energy into the production through athletic scene transitions that see the nuns dancing from place to place, with Ellison cartwheeling on- and offstage as needed. He pushes melodramatic discovery moments to the limit, winning great mugging from the entire cast. And he creates delightful frisson between Cerda and Holloway in a fast-talking newspaperman and -woman flashback. But there is something missing from Hell in a Handbag’s production, and that something is hysteria. Look at any movie about nuns circa the 1950’s to the 1970’s, and religious fervor plays a large role, often to the point of driving women insane. Murray does right by the sunnier plot contrivances of Busch’s script, but he fails to exaggerate the fear of damnation and intense sexual repression that typifies these films. By missing such an important target, he robs the play of its inherent ridiculousness, dulling the edge of Busch’s cuts at social norms and expectations for female behavior.

The cast, however, does its best to make the audience believe in the outlandish stakes at play. Cerda presents both a gentle and slightly vampy Mother Superior. Ellison spends half her time as a character from “The Exorcist,” and the other fifty percent as a Sister Maria knock-off. Holloway gives the most physically daffy performance, committing to a spiritual healing by waggling his thumb at angles he shouldn’t be capable of, right before falling to the ground and doing one-handed push-ups. Only Chad seems to realize he needn’t do a little with a lot, barbing his every line as Mrs. Levinson with dripping disdain and clear angst.

Scenic designers Mitch Anthony and John Holt benefit from having the actual stained glass of Ebenezer Lutheran Church to work with, while light designer Cat Wilson drenches their additional walls with red and blue, based on the dramatic reveals involved. Special recognition should be given to wig designer Keith Wilson, as his bouffant for Chad becomes its own character, and his wigs for the other players fail to wilt in the unfortunately non-air conditioned space.

Given all these elements, “The Divine Sister” could have been a camp classic, but due to the nature of the script and the pulled punches of this production, it lands as an amusing trifle without much to say.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Nuns fail to fascinate in a weak camp comedy.

DICE RATING: d6 – “Has Some Merit”