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Review: NUNSENSE Proves a Hard Habit to Break at Saint Vincent Summer Theater

I love THIS production of Nunsense. I hope you do too.

Review: NUNSENSE Proves a Hard Habit to Break at Saint Vincent Summer Theater After a pandemic-induced hiatus, Saint Vincent Summer Theater is back! It's not quite a full rejuvenation, as the shows now run only a week and lack the party atmosphere with free food and drink that once marked the program. Still, it's always a pleasure to return to the long drive through the beautiful (and allegedly SUPER-HAUNTED campus), and to see little shows on the big stage again.

I'll admit, when I heard the season opener was Nunsense, I groaned a little. In my mind, Nunsense always registers as a slightly hacky, creaky, schmaltzy show that went out of fashion around the time between the two Sister Act movies. And then, I see Nunsense, and I remember the truth. Nunsense is a weird little show, in (mostly) the best way possible. If you can imagine a PG-13 version of the original Muppet Show with nuns instead of Muppets, this is that.

The plot is minimal and this one is mostly a vaudeville: Mother Superior (Erin Seaberg) and her four nuns are among the only survivors of a food-poisoning epidemic, putting on a show to save the convent and bury the dead after Mother Superior squandered their cash on a large television. Wackiness ensues in that grand Muppety tradition. What makes this Nunsense work, and what has sunk several before it at other theatres, is that director Gregg Brandt recognizes that this is a strange, grotesque little show, and leans into that instead of leaning away.

A few characters crack jokes in the opening scene about "not many Catholics in the audience," when things like prayer cards or behavior-modifying clickers failed to register as huge laughs. This, and an extended song in Act 2 about nostalgia for the days of pre-Vatican-II Latin mass, mark the show clearly as a product of the Boomer generation, despite being ostensibly set in the present day. But there's a streak of the alternative comedy so beloved by Boomers running through the show as well; bizarre prop comedy using nun's habits as wigs, some very Borscht Belt blue humor that comes out of nowhere, and especially a very long but very funny scene in which a stodgy nun huffs nitrous oxide and proceeds to trip out with increasing loss of bodily coordination.

The cast of five is extremely solid, with the aforementioned Erin Seaberg balancing the "old battleaxe" side of Mother Superior with her increasing loopiness as the night goes on... aided by that drug trip I mentioned above. Shelby Garrett makes a winning mistress of novices, playing sidekick and second banana to Seaberg in a double act that recurs throughout the night. Hannah Bearer and Taylor Ruffo, as the two youngest nuns, are both stars in the making, Bearer tough and gutsy with a Kate McKinnon quality and Ruffo a perfectly sweet ingenue who occasionally breaks into a classic Broadway broad. This is the kind of show where more than one number ends with a character unexpectedly going into a faux-Ethel Merman belt and strutting like a diva before being chastised; though it may be repetitive on paper, Ruffo and Bearer both nail the bit in their own ways.

If there's a true breakout star of the show, though, it's Sarah Chelli as Sister Mary Amnesia. Mary Amnesia is traditionally played a little old and a little doddering, her memory not quite what it once was. Instead, Chelli (with assistance from Brandt and choreographer Renata Marino) creates one of the most endearingly bizarre stage characters I've ever seen. Part Pee-Wee Herman, part Rain Man, part Marcel the Shell with Shoes On and part Butters from South Park, her Mary Amnesia is a deeply brain-damaged woman-child whose vivacious id is forever on the verge of breaking through to the surface. There's a fantastic number in which the sweet-natured Mary Amnesia sings a duet with a puppet nun; when the puppet nun grows increasingly rebellious and foul-mouthed, it's unclear how much is the rather slow-witted Mary clowning and how much is her subconscious actively projecting through the puppet. In a show as intentionally old-fashioned as this, Chelli's portrayal is a welcome burst of millennial-centric cringe comedy, a character who we love even as watching her makes us subtly uncomfortable. Plus, her rapid transitions from a bright, effervescent legit soprano to her character voice and then a rough alto for the puppet are seamless.

The question remains: "in 2022, who exactly is this for?" The list of people who remember the pre-Vatican II Latin-spouting penguin nuns is dwindling... and the list of people who remember them FONDLY is even shorter. But I'm not sure it matters. Even if nuns were fictional constructs, there's something inherently funny about them. They're quaint and old-fashioned but they're human under the costumes, deeply fallible (especially the drug-sniffing Mother Superior). Despite my own run-ins with traditionalist nuns being somewhere between hilarious and deeply scarring (long story), I've come to terms with the fact that I like Nunsense. And there was no coming to terms needed to decide that I love THIS production of Nunsense. I hope you do too.

From This Author - Greg Kerestan

A long-time BWW regular, Greg Kerestan is proud to join the staff of his favorite website. Greg is a graduate of Duquesne University and Seton Hill University, where he studied both theatre and English.... (read more about this author)

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