THE DIVINE SISTER (Regional Premiere)By Charles Busch
Directed by Andi Allen
Musical Direction by Kevin Gunter
Set Design by Clare Floyd Devries
Lighting Design by Amanda West
Costume Design by Suzi Cranford
Wigs and Make up Design by Coy Covington
Sound Design by Andi Allen
Props Design by Amy Hughes
Stage Management by Blake Kile
Mother Superior - Coy Covington
Sister Walburga/Mrs. Macduffie - Lee Jamison
Agnes - Annette Oswald
Jeremy/Brother Venerius - Kevin Moore
Mrs. Levinson/Timothy - Mary-Margaret Pyeatt
Reviewed Performance: 7/14/2012
Reviewed by John Garcia, Senior Chief Theater Critic/Editor/Founder, THE COLUMN. Member, AMERICAN THEATRE CRITICS ASSOCIATION for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Think about it for a second. You can single out plays penned by Neil Simon, Harvey Fierstein, Douglas Carter Beane, Wendy Wasserstein and Richard Greenberg among others. Some of their writing has that same familiarity when they write for TV and film. A current example of that is Aaron Sorkin. You sit in the theater watching the work of these playwrights and you can say, "Oh this is very much a Neil Simon play!" You can use any well known playwright's name in that sentence.
This speaks volumes of truth when it comes to playwright/author/actor/director Charles Busch. He has stated in many interviews and articles his deep love for the golden era of Hollywood, especially the glamour of various female movie stars. Busch particularly enjoys the acting style of the screen goddesses in those dramatic soap opera, pot boiler/weeper style of films. They portray tragic heroines who tried to overcome major obstacles and find true love in the end, or death. He is also greatly influenced by Charles Ludlam, another famous drag actor/director/playwright who founded The Ridiculous Theatrical Company in the 1960s.
Throw all that into a mixing bowl and you a get a Charles Busch play! His piece de resistance was that Busch would cast himself as the leading lady, in drag. It was never done as a drag queen per se; he transformed himself as a real woman on stage. He has achieved great critical success for his special idiosyncratic playwriting as well as for his acting technique. Both go hand in hand.
Uptown Players produced Busch's play Die Mommie Die several seasons ago, resulting in a critical and box office hit for them. Now they bring us the regional premiere of Busch's latest work, The Divine Sister, which was produced off-Broadway in 2009.
This is one of Busch's funniest and sharpest scripts in recent memory, from beginning to end. He transports the audience to April 1966 and the St. Veronica's Convent School in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. There we meet Mother Superior who has quite an eclectic array of nuns she watches over. She is struggling to save her convent from being torn down. She attempts to get a financial contribution from a wealthy widower who is an atheist with no success. She also has written a book in hopes to get it published. From there Busch has woven a gut-busting array of subplots that are in context quite familiar, but when he sprinkles them with his magical Busch comedic writing, they result in nonstop laughter. I won't spoil the surprise twists and turns because not knowing will only add more fun to your enjoyment of this piece.
Talk about girl power within the production staff. Uptown Players has hired all women for this team. Talk about their own special blend of spice girls!
The design elements are all flawless here. Clare Floyd Devires has designed a gorgeous set. Kalita Humphreys Theater has a massive turntable which works like magic to take the audience between the two major sets. One is the courtyard of the convent. Ornate arches decorate the central piece, with hanging lighting fixtures that you would see at any church. Make sure to look at the stain glass window stage right for a good giggle! There is a circular seating area with a praying statue among a sea of colorful flowers that anchors stage right. The walls are painted realistically with bricks that seem to be crumbling, for it is after all a decaying relic of a convent. She also has vines crawling up the walls for that special added touch. The second major set unit is the living room for Mrs. Levinson, the rich atheist. Here Devires keeps it sleek, sharp and very chic, from the marble fireplace center stage to the art deco columns that frame the entrance. This set is greatly aided by the dazzling array of props Amy Hughes either designed and/or found. Elegant pillows, bric-a-bracs, knickknacks and a great array of a certain type of collectables on the walls that you need to see, for they alone generate laughs.
Amanda West's lighting design bathes Devries' sets with a warm, honeydew coating. For some special comedic moments she creates lighting that actually becomes an extra rim shot for the actors on stage. How many lighting designers today have that magical quality to know where to add a special light or gobo, giving a laugh line that extra oomph, resulting in thunderous laughter? The actors literally had to hold for laughs thanks to this genius stroke of design. I so wish more lighting designers would dissect scripts (both in plays AND musicals) the way Ms. West does. That's true artistry in my book! Brava!
The costumes by Suzi Cranford are perfection in both detail and period. But she also has wicked fun with them as well. While the nuns do wear the typical habits, it is their shoes that give their characters jovial visual subtext. The nun who heads the physical education department wears black converse tennis shoes while the German nun wears black combat boots that must have come from the Tom in Finland collection. Mrs. Levinson is adorned in beautiful period costumes, each one topped off with elegant jewelry. She wears a floor length gown of bright patterns and crisp, clean skirt and jacket pieces that speak volumes for the character.
Special kudos must also go to Coy Covington's wig designs. Every actor & actress in town wants Covington to do their wigs and the reason why is there on stage. Each wig is coiffed to visual perfection. They don't look haggard, messy or like they were pulled out of the box and planted onto the actor's heads. Instead, they are beautifully crafted, cut, layered and designed, and in correct period styles as well!
Director Andi Allen once again shows why she is one of the best directors when it comes to comedy. She knows that casting is a major element in making a show work and she succeeds with this cast. You can tell that she allows the actors to each bring their own comedic gifts and talents to the table, and gives them the stage to embellish, expand, and explore those talents to their full potential. They never pull focus or are out of character; instead it adds a tremendous amount of laughter throughout the evening. Her blocking and staging are right on point with only one tiny hiccup. The scenes with Brother Venerius that take place far stage right seem crammed and confined. While the set piece behind him is terrific, the two actors in those scenes are caged in with very little breathing room. Allen keeps the pace going at marvelous speed. I hold great respect to directors who know that you gotta push through the dang exposition to get to the meat and potatoes of any script. The cast never once lets the pace become sluggish. Allen does a fantastic job helming this hysterical comedy.
And what a sensational cast Allen has assembled on the Kalita Humphreys stage!
Teri Rogers portrays Agnes, the young postulant who has visions and hears voices. Rogers has angelic facial features that actually give her that Julie Andrews sugar and spice aura. Rogers' comedic timing, pace and delivery hits its mark in every scene she's in. Her chemistry with her fellow actors is pure harmony throughout. She also has a delicious piece of physical comedy in Act II that earns loud applause from the audience.
Sister Acacius, the butch physical educational nun is hilariously portrayed by Janette Oswald. Oswald lands some of the heartiest laughs in several key scenes with her sizzling comedic talents. Her facial expressions and reactions are priceless. Her chemistry with Coy Covington and Lee Jamison is riveting and hilarious and is received with robust laughter from the audience. There is a name she is called (by mistake) that becomes a great one -liner throughout the second act, and Oswald milks it for all its worth. It's comedy gold for her!
Lee Jamison is the Meryl Streep within the cast. She superbly masters both German and Irish dialects like Streep would. But Jamison knows instinctively where to bump up the accent to produce bigger laughs, and it works every single time she speaks them. Jamison uses her facial expressions to earn some rowdy guffaws as the evening progresses. But wait till you see what she does for physical comedy. All I will say is that, while it is quite adult in nature, it will have you crossing your legs for fear of tinkling in your pants from laughing so hard. Jamison delivers an exceptional, comedic, powerhouse performance here.
Another stand out performance comes from Mary-Margaret Pyeatt. In fact, this is the best comedic work I have seen from this very talented actress. Pyeatt has a most difficult challenge, transitioning to play both a rich, old atheist and a young boy who attends the convent school. With extraordinary skill and talent, she pulls off both characterizations with meticulous acting craft and choices. As Mrs. Levinson, a rich woman with many secrets, she physically transforms her body to walk slow with stiffness in her hands and back. She speaks in a snooty tone that matches her characterization like a Chanel glove. For Timothy, the young boy who has trouble hitting the ball with a bat, she magically metamorphoses him both with her body and voice. She again uses her body to show that awkward pubescent boy, and the cherry on top is the addition of a hysterical lisp. Pyeatt is greatly aided in her transformations with Cranford's costumes and Covington's wigs. Pyeatt is the surprise performance of the evening and she is outstanding.
Coy Covington wears the rhinestone encrusted tiara of being Uptown's resident Diva of Drag. He has portrayed several roles for them in drag, each one a huge success for both the company and Covington. This actor actually is a premier artist who knows exactly how to do a Charles Busch play. He is fully aware that just being in drag is all that he needs to get the laughs. This visual is funny for about five minutes, but then for the next two hours you need to hold the audience's attention with your acting craft, choices and tools to flesh out a character the audience is enchanted with enough to forget it's a man in drag. Busch has that rare quality, as does Covington. His performance in Busch's Die Mommie Die was Covington's crowning achievement as an actor, with his ability to truly bring out the magic of Busch's writing and acting. Covington does not try to impersonate Busch, but instinctively knows where the jokes should land. Where to change his voice and how to use facial expressions to make Busch's comedy hit its mark is Covington's art, and he never misses.
Well kiddos, his performance as Mother Superior actually outshines his previous performance as he gives one of the greatest comedic performances I've seen from any actor in this theater community in The Divine Sister.
I honestly did not think that Covington could top his work in Die Mommie Die but he does in massive abundance as Mother Superior. His comedic timing, delivery and pace are a masterpiece of acting. But he doesn't stop there; he uses his voice, volume, and inflections to turn a simple line into a roaring wave of laughter. To complete his craft there's the face. His makeup design gives him the full illusion of a woman. But it's the facial expressions that make the character complete, and his takes to the audience or his cast are so freaking hilarious. He literally had to wait for minutes for the laughter to subside several times thanks to those hilarious facial expressions. His chemistry with all his fellow actors is sublime. Covington also knows that it takes a full cast to make a comedy a hit, thus he never once tries to steal focus, overact, or tries to "up" one on his fellow actors. He instead gives his co-stars their full moments on stage to enjoy the prolonged laughs, and even helps in setting up several key comedic moments for the other actors. Covington never once loses focus or drops out of character. At Saturday's performance he accidentally tripped up the stairs for an exit. He turned that little mistake into a side-splitting take that had the audience howling and applauding. He stayed in full character but did it like the comedic genius he is! It's been a long while since I attended a play where I laughed so hard and so much, all thanks to the performance given by Covington.
But the praise must also go to his fellow cast mates for they all join in as one and provide one of the most hysterical evenings of theater that I have seen in quite some time.
Here's how I'd like to wrap up this review. In 2006 Busch co-wrote, starred and directed an independent film titled A Very Serious Person. It was a non-drag role - he played a male nurse who cares for a terminally ill woman, played by Polly Bergen, who is also raising her parentless thirteen-year-old grandson. The film was part of the Dallas USA Film Festival. The organizers contacted me and asked if I would like to serve as mediator for the Q&A with Busch at the screening. I accepted immediately! In that strange twist of fate, Uptown Players had just opened the regional premiere of Busch's play, Die Mommie Die, starring Mr. Covington.
The theater's Artistic Directors invited Mr. Busch and his guest (his frequent collaborator, Carl Andress) to attend the production. I was asked by the film festival staff if I would go with Mr. Busch as the representative for them and to be his escort. So, here you have Covington's idol, mentor and favorite playwright just a mere few feet away, about to perform in of Busch's greatest successes as an actor and playwright. Talk about pressure! As the show moved along (which was going spectacularly, especially for Covington), I kept sneaking in quick glances at Busch, who I sat next to, to see his reactions. He responded with hearty, full out laughter throughout the evening. Afterwards there was a private meet and greet with Busch and the cast. I stood next to Busch as he was introduced to the cast, etc.
Covington, still in full makeup and costume, and Busch shared great hugs, laughter, and a long discussion about each other, Busch`s work, and other topics. Busch told Covington he was so damn good that he was going to steal some of Covington's comedic bits and facial expressions to use the next time he portrayed that role!
Busch said he gets invited all the time to see his plays all over the country but he always politely declines. He doesn't like to see other actors in his roles because he said he sees how they do not understand the character, the arc, and the comedic timing and subtext. But he said to Covington, "You got it. You nailed it perfectly." I couldn't agree more.
I'm sure if Busch saw this production he would be extremely proud of the end results, not only in the areas of design and direction, but also from this exemplary cast.
And with The Divine Sister, Covington continues to wear that glittery crown as the master of how to do a Busch-penned play.
Kalita Humphreys Theater
3636 Turtle Creek Blvd at Blackburn
Dallas, TX 75219
Through July 29th
Shows are Friday/Saturday at 8:00 pm and Sunday at 2:00 pm.
There's a special performance on Thursday, July 26th at 8:00 pm.
Tickets are $25-$35 and can be purchased online at www.uptownplayers.org or by phone at (214) 219-2718