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Wednesday, September 21,2011

Not quite heavenly

Naughty nuns kick the habit in salacious spoof 'Divine Sister'

by Paul Wozniak

Audiences be warned: Lansing Civic Player’s season opener “The Divine Sister” is a perverse, expletive-laden, alacritous satire of sisters from stage and cinema. Like the creators of “South Park,” playwright Charles Busch (“Psycho Beach Party,” “Die! Mommy! Die!,” “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife”) demands
an audience that appreciates his uninhibited perspective of pop culture
as filtered through melodramatic, politically progressive camp. LCP
simply requests an audience, period — preferably one that wants to see
Busch. 


To his credit, director Mike Stewart gathered a cast that
shares his zealotry for the material. An absurd level of commitment is
required to sell characters in drag or to deliver monologues filled
with phallic imagery without flinching or laughing. When every other
line feels like it should be followed with a drum-set sting, it’s
tempting to play the joke — a temptation most of the cast thankfully
avoids.


Unfortunately, one odd exception is Paul Levandowski in the show’s leading and most challenging role, Mother Superior. 


Originally played by Busch in the Off- Broadway
production, Mother Superior is a direct parody of head nuns like Ingrid
Bergman’s character in “The Bells of St. Mary” or Meryl Streep’s character in “Doubt.”
Consistent traits in most of these characters are wholesomeness, pious
restraint and a belief in tradition over progress. Mother Superior
mocks this notion when she says, “We are living in a time of great
social change. We must do everything in our power to stop it.”


However, Levandowski’s drag-queen-inspired delivery —
accentuated with an exaggerated lisp and excessive eye make-up — not
only feels inconsistent with the original archetype, it also transforms
Mother Superior from a potentially pithy parody into a one-note visual
gag.


Overall, the rest of the cast play their humorous homages
more faithfully. Mike Stewart portrays Sister Walburga with crisp,
Germanic precision, while Sarah Sonnenberg impressively inhabits a
middle-aged male newspaper reporter, complete with rapid-fire dialogue.


Perhaps the most satisfying scene-stealing comes from
Laura Croff Wheaton as the conspiratorial Brother Venerius and the
Scottish janitor Mrs. MacDuffie, equipped with a brogue that even “The
Simpsons’” Willie would be envy.


Despite the pervasive energy and effort from the entire
cast, the show’s greatest obstacle is perhaps the space itself.
Understandably, the Hannah Community Center auditorium was not LCP’s
first choice for this production, and Lansing’s limited options present
few viable alternatives.


But a play of this nature, shall we say,
demands a more intimate setting where inebriated laughter directly
fuels the gutter-level antics on stage. Thursday’s audience of a dozen
ill-prepared people made the entire auditorium feel hollow, resulting
in second act performances plagued by desperation and the tedium of
slipped lines.


Technical elements like lighting
designed by G. Michael Stewart and sound designed by Joe Dickson and
Matt Ottinger are spot on, but are far less essential to the success of
this show. The set, on the other hand, feels dwarfed by the enormity of
the stage, resulting in unmotivated movement as characters strut around
the stage for no other reason than to fill the space. 


“Sister”
marks a commendable and daring departure from LCP’s established
repertoire. That said, for a season opener to come out swinging, it
needs to consistently hit the mark.




‘The Divine Sister’


Lansing Civic Players


Through Sept. 25


8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sunday


Hannah Community Center, 819 Abbot Road,


East Lansing


$8-$14


(517) 484-9115


www.lansingcivicplayers.org

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