Photograph by Cindy Brillhart True
By David Templeton
M en dressed as nuns are funny. Who knows why, but it's true whether it's Jeff Goldblum and Rowan Atkinson singing and dancing in wimples and robes in The Tall Guy ; male Carnevale dancers in Rio parading down the streets attired as women of the cloth; or the subversive political antics of San Francisco's reigning queer nuns, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. There's something undeniably joyous and silly about seeing a nun who is actually a dude.
So it was welcome news when Sonoma's Hoochi-Doo Productions—having already enjoyed huge success with their previous string of Dan Goggins' various Nunsense musicals—announced that their 2008 season would kick off with Nunsense A-Men , a variation on the original, cabaret-style Nunsense , done exactly the same except that the Little Sisters of Hoboken are to be played not by women but by guys.
How could that not be funny? I can't answer that, except to say that in Hoochi-Doo's surprisingly flat, energy-deficient new production, it isn't.
I can only theorize that the cast, some of whom are reasonably experienced and accomplished in the ways of musicals, are trying too hard to play it "straight," avoiding going over the top into the realm of camp. The problem is, this play is camp; even when the nuns are played by women, it's camp, intended to be played slightly over the top.
These nuns are named Sister Mary Amnesia and Sister Julia, Child of God. They sing songs about leprosy, with lyrics describing the shedding of body parts. One nun performs a vaudeville routine with a hand puppet, while the Mother Superior gets stoned and starts tripping on stage, pretending to do the Australian crawl while suspended on a stool. It's camp, and the only thing that happens when you play that down, especially when your nuns are a bunch of guys in nun drag, is to make it less funny. Sadly, that's exactly what they've accomplished with this one.
It's a disappointment, given that Hoochi-Doo has made such a strong name for themselves doing the Nunsense plays over the years. We've come to expect better from director Vicki Martinez, who, as a veteran of musicals, certainly knows what she's doing and has proven herself to be an able and inventive director of cabaret shows.
Nunsense A-Men's story, what little there is of it, has not been changed. In the recreation hall of the convent's school, the Little Sisters of Hoboken are staging a musical benefit show in order to raise enough money to bury some of their order, who recently died of botulism—blame Sister Julia, Child of God—and are cooling their heels in the dining room freezer. The reverend mother Sister Mary Regina (Jeremy Berrick) rules the show with an iron fist, browbeating the nuns into performing song and dance routines ("Nunsense Is Habit Forming," "Holier Than Thou"), refusing to allow the street-wise Sister Robert Anne (J. Anthony Martin) to have more than a supporting role in the show.
Sister Hubert (Edwin Richards) is the reverend mother's competitive second-in-command, gamely enforcing the R.M.'s show plan while taking every opportunity to interject her own ideas. Sister Leo (Curtis Hoffmann) is the newest and youngest member, a classically trained dancer who imagines she'll one day become the world's first nun ballerina; the benefit show is her big opportunity to strut her stuff. Sister Mary Amnesia (Scott Maraj) is so named because a crucifix once fell on her head and now she can't remember who she is—or any of the dance steps.
Of all the actors, Martin, familiar from performances at various companies around the North Bay, comes out best here, ably demonstrating his fine singing voice and commanding stage presence. Maraj has perfected a kind of blank, smiling, slightly worried facial expression as Sister Amnesia, which is genuinely endearing. No one else in the cast makes much of an impression, another disappointment given how well-defined and colorful each character has been in past Hoochi-Doo Nunsense shows.
The best part of this production is the theater itself. A nifty new space created on the campus of the Sonoma Charter School, the Playbox (as it's been dubbed), is a comfortable "black box" room with a reasonably good-sized stage and great sight lines from every corner of the audience area. It's a good home for Hoochi-Doo. I look forward to their next production there. Presumably, with this misfire securely behind them, Hoochi-Doo will be back in the same fine form that has made them one of Sonoma's most promising companies.
'Nunsense A-Men' runs Friday–Sunday through Feb. 24. Friday–Saturday at 8pm; Sunday at 3pm. The Playbox, Sonoma Charter School, 17202 Sonoma Hwy., Sonoma. $20–$25. 707.332.0621.
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