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09 Mar 2015

'Divine' Indeed: Desert Rose's Send-up of Films Featuring Nuns Is a Raucous Romp

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Jim Strait in The Divine Sister. Jim Strait in The Divine Sister.

If you’re one of those poor souls carrying resentment about mistreatment by nuns in Catholic school—or if you just need a few good belly laughs—get to the Desert Rose Playhouse, pronto.

The Divine Sister, produced by Paul Taylor, may just be your salvation.

The play was originally conceived by actor, writer and longtime female impersonator Charles Busch as a star vehicle for himself. Known for his off-Broadway play Vampire Lesbians of Sodom and the Broadway hit The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, Busch once said, “Drag is being more, more than you can be.”

The Divine Sister is a demented tribute to films featuring nuns, from The Sound of Music to Agnes of God. The story unfolds at St. Veronica’s Convent and grade school in Pittsburgh. Mother Superior (Jim Strait) has many issues to deal with, including the fact that the school building is falling down. She’s dealing with a young postulate named Agnes (of course), who believes she has magical healing powers and that the Virgin Mary speaks directly to her; Timothy, a young boy in desperate need of baseball coaching who doesn’t yet realize he’s gay; and a newly arrived German nun who may not be all that she seems.

Throw in devout atheist Mrs. Levinson, who could fund a new school if she were so inclined, and a man from Mother Superior’s crime-reporting past who is still pining for her, and you can understand the need for a few extra prayers.

Strait, who also serves as Desert Rose’s artistic director, is tremendous here. Though The Divine Sister is an ensemble piece, Strait is the captain of the ship, and he skillfully leads his cast through this irreverent romp. He’s strong actor and a charismatic presence who seems very comfortable in drag—but his physical size and voice remind us that there’s some testosterone in the mix as well. Sporting a long, curly wig and heels, Strait’s first appearance as girl reporter Susan Appleyard gets a huge laugh. Strait seems to be having as much fun as the audience is, which really enhances the theater-going experience.

Allison Feist is perfectly cast as innocent Agnes, who truly believes she’s been specially chosen by God. She exudes both the religious fervor of Meg Tilly in Agnes of God and the girlish mischievousness of Julie Andrews in The Sounds of Music. The physical gyrations she goes through while “healing” others are laugh-out-loud funny. Keep an eye on Feist; she has a bright future ahead of her.

As Sister Acacius, Lorraine Williamson knocks the role out of the park. Big, bold and brassy, she shows off animated facial expressions and perfect comic timing that remind me of a combination of Jo Anne Worley and Lucille Ball. Sister Acacius has a lusty past, and her vow of celibacy sometimes seems to waiver. When handsome movie consultant Jeremy (the fabulous Timm McBride) begins describing his impressive manhood in great detail, Williamson’s efforts not to drool are precious.

Adina Lawson delivers an award-worthy performance as smug, privileged Mrs. Levinson. Early in the show, two nuns visit her in an effort to secure funds to build a new school. Mrs. Levinson explains her devout atheism while describing agnostics as “wishy-washy fools afraid to take an intelligent stand. Give me religious zealots. At least you can depend on their stupidity.” Later, while sharing memories of her late husband Morris (including sea creatures during a visit to Crete, and his fatal heart attack), Levinson peppers her stories with hilarious Vogue magazine-esque descriptions of what she was wearing. Her turn as 12-year-old Timothy is equally impressive. Lawson is a pro—she totally embodies each character and is clearly having a blast on stage.

The always-interesting Alden West is quite good as the mysterious German nun, Sister Maria Walburga. Like pretty much everyone else in the play, her character has secrets—including a randy side. Walburga’s not-so-subtle invitation to Sister Acacius to have a sexual threesome with another nun is a hoot. West manages to maintain distinctly different (and believable) accents as both Berlin native Sister Walburga and, later, as a Scottish housekeeper. Any actor will tell you that to accomplish such a thing within the same play is not an easy feat.

As both Jeremy (the well-endowed film consultant hunting for a good story) and sinister monk Brother Venerius, Timm McBride is excellent. Having each actor play two roles in a production doesn’t always work, but it does here—beautifully. There is not a single weak performance here.

Director J. Stegar Thompson gets the best out of his strong cast. He keeps the pace going, which keeps the laughs flowing. I look forward to seeing more of his work in the future. Thomas L. Valach’s set and Phil Murphy’s lighting provide just the right mood, as does Thompson’s sound. In a show with so much cross-dressing and actors playing dual roles, costumes (Kathryn Ferguson) and wigs (Toni Molano and Timm McBride) are crucial. All are spot on. Stage manager Steve Fisher deserves a nod as well.

This terrific show did suffer through a couple of glitches on opening night. There was a stumble right out of the gate with sound cues. After a delightful recorded welcome to the show from playwright Charles Busch, opening music began … then abruptly stopped. Then we heard a repeat of Busch’s welcome … which also abruptly stopped. Then there was the music again … which stopped. Finally, the music began in earnest, and the play got underway. The performances were so good that the audience soon forgot about the sound snafu, but it was an unfortunate way to start the night. Another big goof: Toward the end of the show, there was a premature entrance by an actor during a very dramatic moment in the script.

No matter what your religious affiliation, you will enjoy Desert Rose Playhouse’s production of The Divine Sister. It’s funny; it’s raucous; and it’s one hell of an entertaining evening.

The Divine Sister is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, March 29, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $28-$30. For tickets or more information, call, 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

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