The Tragic and Horrible Life of the Singing Nun

Written and directed by Blair Fell
Burning Boy Theatre Co.
Grove St. Playhouse
Non-union production (closed)
Review by Maya T. Amis

The Singing Nun faded from sight following the success of "Dominique" in the '60s. Author/Director Blair Fell has loosely based The Tragic and Horrible Life of the Singing Nun on her story, which ended in suicide with her female lover in 1985. This tragic story is given the full camp treatment in this production, which joins a select few shows in managing to be thoroughly over the top and very funny, while also being extremely moving. Narrator Sister Coco Callmeishmael, played in a fetching mini-habit by Craig Archibald, claims to have the real story behind the Singing Nun, as opposed to the "lies" of the Debbie Reynolds film. She whisks the audience to a series of flashbacks in Belgium, reminding them that "plays are long and life is short." The heroine, here called Jeanine Fou, was portrayed as an unattractive, myopic young woman with unplumbed passions by Suzanne Schuckel, who gave a sincere and heart-wrenching performance completely without vanity. Her Jeanine was a collection of repressions and fears, with jerky movements and exaggerated facial expressions betraying her many ambivalences. In contrast, Eileen O'Connor strode around the stage as Jeanine's best friend and lover, "Annie Peaches," an overgrown Girl Scout, faithful, capable and confident.

Jeanine, despairing of fitting in anywhere, enters Our Lady of the Pernicious and Pustulant Wounds, the convent from hell, which contains a whole order of unusual nuns: Sister Maria, with a tendency toward spinning around and singing, and Sister Bertrille, very light on her feet. Laura Desmond, as Maria, was particularly amusing with her saccharine bitchiness, and Karen Wright was not far behind. Lucy Avery Brooke played the Mother Superior, Mother Helen Lawson, as an omnivorous and amoral predator. She was one of the funniest characters in the play, but the opposite of sympathetic. Nick DeMarco, as a priest open to temptation, abetted her. They capitalize on Jeanine's celebrity and use any means necessary to control her, including absinthe and tranquilizers. After Jeanine leaves the convent, Mother Helen enjoys the profits and does nothing to help her with subsequent problems.

All characters except Jeanine and Coco were played by actors doubling their main roles. They overplayed to the extent demanded by the genre, but they did not generally descend to broad burlesque. DeMarco was particularly charismatic and energetic while playing every male role, Archibald's Coco had an excellent way with a world-weary line, but it was Schuckel who gave, and risked, the most. There are fine lines between the pathetic and the grotesque, the funny and the unsettling. She consistently hit the right notes, making Jeanine a valiant failure who ought by rights to have had a better life.

This production was unrepentantly low-budget but cleverly so. The set (David Ripp-Carrera) unfolded from a generic religious architecture background to reveal Mother Helen's office (lovingly decked out in Las Vegas Gothic) and fields of endive and brussels sprouts. The costumes (Liz McGarrity) were simple, with added touches that subverted otherwise normal clothing. Special mention must go to the puppets of saints, made by Karen Wright and Blair Fell, which lent a touch of the surreal. This show had all the right elements to be a cult hit: sacrilege, tragedy, and romance, liberally laced with high camp. (Sound design, Matthew Richman, David Gerard, and John Hoge; Lighting design, Tim Zeller; stage manager, Robert Speck.)

Box Score:
Writing 2
Directing 2
Acting 2
Set 1
Costumes 1
Lighting/Sound 1
Copyright 1996 Maya T. Amis

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