— Mother Superior in The Sound of Music ... and The Divine Sister
Was there ever a line more hilariously misheard? I think not, and so, every night, did audiences lucky enough to see the latest Charles Busch masterpiece, The Divine Sister, which ended its sold-out run last February at the Theater for the New City and re-opens tonight at the Soho Playhouse. The line originated in The Sound of Music, but is used to much better effect in The Divine Sister. Holy crap, it’s hilarious, as a wacky Mother Superior (and former girl reporter) works her wiles on the people of Pittsburgh to get a new convent school built. Mother is of course played by Busch himself, and it’s a fabulous multifaceted role (with a hilariously dubbed musical number) that shows off Busch’s command of all cinematic religious heroines from The Singing Nun to The Trouble with Angels to Agnes of God to The Da Vinci Code.
The dream cast includes the sublime Julie Halston as Sister Acacius the wisecracking right hand nun and Alison Fraser as Sister Walburga, a Teutonic terror from “Der Mother Haus” in Berlin. And what about that nuisance of a Postulate, Agnes (Amy Rutberg), who keeps hearing the Lord’s voice(s) in her head? Is she suffering from Stigmata or ... something stickier? Jennifer Van Dyck, so lovely and funny in Busch's The Third Story, plays Pittsburgh’s richest woman and – gasp! – Atheist! , as well as (in an inspired performance) a young male student who is questioning his sexuality, much to Mother Superior’s dismay.
Agnes’ hysterics have brought media attention, not to mention a man from Mother’s pre-nun past. Will Mother Superior fall back into the arms of her former lover? Will Sister Acacius face what she can’t? Will the evil albino monk and his incognito confidante succeed in their nefarious plot to unseat Jesus as the true Messiah (who knew he had a sibling?)?
Busch channels Rosalind Russell, while Halston makes her Brooklyn sister a tough-talking treat. Watching Busch and Halston spar and joke together is like watching a classic comedy team in their prime, albeit in wimples. Rutberg is sweetly kooky as the addled Agnes and Fraser is a hoot as the fearsome frau.
The Divine Sister is Busch’s robust and raucous return to the downtown shows that made him famous, like Vampire Lesbians of Sodom and Psycho Beach Party. The production design is ingeniously low tech, almost as if it were created by and for a Catholic grade school. The pillars and walls of St. Veronica’s are covered in bricks that bear the unmistakable look of kitchen sponges, while the grand chandelier that lowers to indicate the dowager’s mansion is made of gold-painted paper plates, plastic knives, forks and spoons. There’s plenty of Busch’s trademark one-liners and intelligent parody, and just enough gleeful vulgarity to salute its East Village roots.
These days, with the rabidly anti-gay agenda being pushed by the Catholic Church and the current Pope, it is refreshing to enjoy a show that celebrates a more innocent time in Catholicism where all you need for happiness is a saucy sister with a guitar.
Review by Neil Cohen, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Phoenix's Echo Magazine.