Monday, May 5, 2014

WOBT: "Nunsense"

Playwright Dan Goggin has created a veritable cottage industry with his nine plays about the "Little Sisters of Hoboken", a rag-tag group of nuns whose misadventures have been entertaining audiences since the mid-1980s. -- The first of these is Nunsense, now playing at Prattville's Way Off Broadway Theatre in a frequently revised and updated version under the direction of Sam Wallace.

In this one, the nuns are preparing a benefit performance of a musical revue featuring their assorted and sometimes surprising talents in an effort to keep the Health Inspectors at bay after an incident when their cook, Sister Julia Child of God (get it?) accidentally killed off 52 of the nuns with a batch of deadly vichyssoise; they managed to bury 48 of them, the remaining 4 are being kept on ice in the freezer. So much for subtlety.

It is clear from the outset that there is a pecking order in the convent, and there are innumerable stereotypical nun jokes and other references to Catholicism that only the initiated can fully appreciate; nonetheless, there is enough here to tickle most people's funny-bones regardless of religious affiliation.

The Mother Superior, Sister Mary Regina [Margaret White] runs a strict house with unquestioned (almost) authority; second in command is the Mistress of Novices, Sister Mary Hubert [Tara Fenn], who only thinly disguises her desire to one day become a Mother Superior herself. Sister Robert Ann [Michon Givens] is the rebel of the group who wants to be a star, but whose attempts to secure a place in the revue are thwarted by Mother Superior. Sister Mary Leo [Mary Givens] is a novice in the convent who expresses herself in dance ("Dancing is the way I pray", she says.). And Sister Mary Amnesia [Alison Mykes] can't remember her actual name -- or much else, at times -- but who can belt out a country song or an operatic aria with the best of them.

The ensemble's good intentions and attempts to engage the audience with witty repartee and parlor games work some of the time, but seem forced at others. Yet their combined individual efforts warm the audience who engage in the silliness on stage. -- With a script full of strained puns and risque double-entendre comments unbefitting nuns (though keeping an innocent demeanor), and with continual references to musical theatre history and now out-of-date or esoteric social commentary, many of the jokes fall a bit flat. And the energy level often wanes between the twenty or so musical numbers.

Each of the cast members brings some strength to the entertainment. We can laugh scornfully at Mother Superior's haughtiness, but Ms. White redeems her character in a delightfully uninhibited sequence when she gets high and prances around like Carmen Miranda. Ms. Fenn's self-control as the second-fiddle is redeemed in a rousing Gospel number. Ms. Michon Givens' frankness is disarming, and she is most successful in sharing with the audience, making us complicit in her every action. Ms. Mary Givens is so sincere in the novice's tentative questioning of her vocation and brings a truthful human touch to the proceedings. And Ms. Mykes, in fine singing voice and comic hand-puppetry with a nun-puppet that seems to have "tourette syndrome", is so refreshingly animated as the bewildered Sister Mary Amnesia, that out collective hearts go out to her and stay with her for the duration of the play.

While individual moments shine in this production, picking up the pace and energy levels would make for an even more enticing evening's entertainment.