As the mercury climbs, many head to the Southern California coast to cool down. They will be joined there this July 11th-14th by playwright, actor and drag icon Charles Busch. Busch and fellow original cast members Julie Halston and Alison Fraser from his hit Off-Broadway homage to movie nuns, The Divine Sister, will reunite at UCLA’s James Bridges Theater for five performances. L.A. Theatre Works will record and air the production soon after on public radio stations nationwide.
“We do it with a live audience and a sound effects guy at a table,” Busch revealed during a recent phone interview from his home in New York City. “It’s done absolutely like old-time radio.”
Busch needs little introduction as the author of such modern theatre classics as Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, the Tony Award-nominated Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, Psycho Beach Party and Die, Mommie, Die!, the latter two of which were turned into popular movies. More recently, he has written the book for the gay-themed musical Taboo as well as a hit stage version of the children’s book Bunnicula, about a vampire rabbit.
“It was a strange notion for me, writing a children’s musical,” Busch shared. “I recently stepped into the elevator of my apartment building and there was a child in it. I screamed because I thought it was a circus midget. (Giggling) Its mother was not pleased.”
In The Divine Sister, Busch plays the indomitable Mother Superior of St. Veronica’s convent. She is determined to build a new school at almost any cost. I asked Busch if his Mother Superior character is based on or inspired by a particular screen nun.
“My sort of trip, as I call it, is to evoke a number of different actresses but the audience comes away thinking it’s one,” Busch replied. “Mother Superior is 7/8 Rosalind Russell in The Trouble with Angels, and it ends up being a homage to her whole career; she really is the template but you only get to play a nun once, so I threw in Ingrid Bergman in The Bells of St. Mary’s as well.” Busch noted that his 2010 play is best termed “nun noir” and also includes references to Black Narcissus, Agnes of God and even The Da Vinci Code.
More and more local productions of The Divine Sister are being staged, which pleases Busch immensely. “It’s a lovely surprise that Divine Sister is being done all across the country, even more so than my ‘mainstream’ play, The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife.” However, Busch’s LA performances this July will mark the first time he has performed as Mother Superior outside of New York, even though he won’t appear in drag since it is a radio production.
“I did have to adapt the script a little bit to make sure it makes sense (to radio listeners) but I noticed it really works well,” Busch said. “I do have to establish the setting at the start of each scene,” he continued. “The fine line is that you have a live audience but also one that is only going to be hearing it and not seeing it; you don’t want to cheat your audience.” Busch has performed in radio productions for L.A. Theatre Works twice before, in Tale of the Allergist’s Wife and as Lady Bracknell in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest.
Busch explained the personal genesis of The Divine Sister: “I was raised with no religion at all but I became enraptured by these romantic notions of nuns in the old movies on TV. I noticed over time that there are different ‘varieties’ of nuns that seem reflective of Hollywood’s treatment of the Church over the decades.”
Since nuns seem to inspire both admiration and terror, I was curious to know how audience members have reacted to Busch’s Mother Superior. “They all seem to love it,” he replied, “but one of the things I enjoy with an audience is that they gasp at some of the things she says which are horrifying and severe. (The play is) set in the mid-1960’s, so she represents some radically conservative views that sometimes shock the audience.”
I asked Busch if there is any chance he will star in a movie version of The Divine Sister in the future. “I’d love it,” he exclaimed. “Like Norma Desmond, I long to return to the screen (laughs). Psycho Beach Party and Die, Mommie, Die! both kind of just happened; if I want Divine Sister to happen as a movie I’d have to see to it but I’m not focused enough. Maybe I’ll write a screenplay first and shop it around.”
In the meantime, Busch has plenty to keep him busy. “I’ve always got something up my sleeve; I have this new play (tentatively titled The Tribute Artist) that I’m really excited about but it won’t go into rehearsal until the end of this year,” Busch shared. “It’s a Some Like It Hot, zany kind of thing and I play a man, which is a change, who dresses as a woman.”
Any chance to watch Busch in action should not be missed. For more information about The Divine Sister’s Los Angeles run or to purchase tickets, visit the L.A. Theatre Works website or call (310) 827-0889.
Interview by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.