The Divine Sister — Send This Cast to Summer Camp

(L-R): Sister Acacius (Elizabeth Marshall Black), Mrs. Levinson (Michelle Levinson) and Mother Superior (Joel Sandel)
(L-R): Sister Acacius (Elizabeth Marshall Black), Mrs. Levinson (Michelle Levinson) and Mother Superior (Joel Sandel)
Photo by Dalton DeHart

The execution:
Mother Superior (a radiantly chipper Joel Sandel) arrives at St. Veronica's convent by bicycle with habit flapping.
It's a star turn, literally, if not laterally.

She's a vision in black and white as she circumnavigates, with a slash of Jungle Red lipstick and rouged cheeks like headlamps. It's a wacky beginning to Charles Busch's celestial sendup of all those '40s B-movie weepies and some '60s B-movie family fare with sassy nuns. The suds and the sass are thick and creamy via Celebration Theatre's heavenly production of The Divine Sister.

Even better yet is another star turn for Sandel. Soon we're inside a flashback to Mother's newspaper reporter days, and in she struts like a motormouth Hildy in His Girl Friday. In green dress, high heels, Titian curls and those glamorous pins – eat worms, Betty Grable – she's like Susan Hayworth, if that estimable actress had been dragged through a knothole backward. She's a sight to behold. And hold tight, indeed, for Busch has more than enough camp surprises in store. It's all politically incorrect and even mildly shocking, which makes this entire enterprise sheer joy. The laughs arrive religiously nonstop.

The story is nonsense, dare I say, Nunsense, but that's hardly the reason for the inherent hilarity. The plots of those Crawford, Davis and Shearer movies were no prize either, and Busch mixes and matches with precise adulation and tender bitch slaps.

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The nunnery's down on its luck; the wrestling team, overseen by butch Sister Acacius (a sublime Elizabeth Marshall Black), is nowhere's-ville; postulant Agnes (an innocently demented Skylar Sinclair), with her crushed-cherry-stained stigmata, sees holy visions and can cure all manner of ills; and there's that mysterious Sister Walburga (Randall Jobe in Edward G. Robinson scowl and horn-rim glasses) from the mother church in Berlin, who's up to something dastardly with creepy Brother Venerius (Brad Goertz playing Bruce Cabot playing Sam Jaffe).

Then, as if all these crazies weren't enough for a dozen movies, in sweeps formidable matron Mrs. Levinson (Michelle Britton in full sail like frigate Old Ironsides), who has a deep, dark secret that just might save the financial woes of the convent. Of course, it doesn't bode well since she's an avowed atheist – and Jewish to boot. There's Timothy (Ms. Britton, again, even better and more showstopping), the little gay fellow at school who's in love with the stud athlete; Jeremy (Goertz once more), Mother Superior's long-ago lover who's after a Hollywood story about Agnes's miraculous powers; and Mrs. MacDuffie (Jobe, too) the former cleaning lady for Mrs. Levinson who spills the beans about her employer's past life.

It's all nuts and so much fun that you won't mind the down-low sex jokes, the fart noises and the bad puns, unless you do, but then there's no accounting for taste, bad or otherwise. Most of them come out of left field, so the juxtaposition seems just right and irreverent. Wait until you hear Jeremy's monologue about his father's penis. I dare you not to snicker, if not outright laugh. It's enough to give a blush to Trump. And Mrs. Levinson's tale about cuttlefish and her pink Schiaparelli bathing suit is damned near perfection. Come to think about it, so is Britton. Everybody in the cast is this side of paradise.

But it's Sandel who ultimately carries the show with his sensible shoes and dry-as-a-wafer delivery. How can you fault his character, who longs to return to the era of real music, white people's music, and then breaks out in Lewis Flinn's parody “A Trinity of Harmony,” accompanied on guitar. She is also writing a book titled The Middle Ages: Not So Bad? Mother Superior's quite sincere: “My dear, we are living in a time of great social change, and we must do everything in our power to stop it.” Delectably off the wall, he might just be the sanest among them.

Director Ron Jones keeps Busch awash in kitsch and tongue-in-cheek cheekiness, as well as celebrates this playwright and actor's (Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, The Tale of the Allergist's Wife) love of showbiz tropes. He glamorizes gender identity, even when poking it in the ass. And look at those costumes by Tony Whitaker, not just the crisp chiaroscuro of the habits, of course, but Mrs. Levinson's opulent disarray of furs, jewels and couturier. Craig Allen's setting is minimal, a few rotating arches to set the scene, which lets Busch – and the zanies at Celebration – loose to run amok, spreading sleazy humor and havoc along the catholic path to merriment.

The verdict:
If you're the least bit prone to take to your divan when offended, this congregation is not for you. But if you like your camp humor goosed with silly fun and more references to old movies than IMDb, there's a pew with your name on it. Hallelujah!

The Divine Sister continues through July 3 with Celebration Theatre at Classical Theatre, 4617 Montrose. For more information, call 832-330-5478 or visit celebrationtheatrehouston.com. $25-$30.

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Classical Theatre Company

4617 Montrose Blvd
Houston, TX 77006


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