Once upon a time, Hollywood loved nuns. They were courageous (“A Nun’s Story”), psychologically healthy (well, all but one in “Black Narcissus”), good-humored (“The Bells of St. Mary’s”), wise and tolerant (“The Sound of Music”) or strong-willed in a holy cause (“Lilies of the Field”).
But by 1966, they were outwitted by the likes of Hayley Mills in “The Trouble With Angels.” From there, the decline was swift: We saw stoned nuns, demonically possessed nuns, oversexed nuns, temptress nuns, deranged nuns and lesbian nuns. There’s nothing in Charles Busch’s “Divine Sister” we haven’t seen on the big screen. But here, the laughs are intentional.
Perhaps not coincidentally, it’s set in 1966, the beginning of the cinematic end. It takes place in Pittsburgh, where a convent and school desperately need upgrades.
The Mother Superior (Ashby Blakely, utterly convincing in the cross-dressing role Busch played in New York in 2010) sings sweetly of her high regard for heavenly inspiration, even when it led to saints being beheaded or impaled.
And she’ll need a lot of inspiration: She’s dealing with a butch nun who’s turned on by both sexes (Barbi VanSchaick), a German nun who has allegedly come from the “mother house” in Berlin on an inspection tour (Catherine Smith), and a potential benefactress (Nicia Carla) who proudly trumpets her atheism. Even sweet postulant Agnes (Carolina Bower) unsettles everybody by having visions and claiming to be able to heal the sick.
A film executive (Robert Lee Simmons) complicates matters, first by trying to get the rights to produce Agnes’ story and then – no, we’d be in spoiler mode beyond this point. Everything in the movie makes a kind of nonsensical sense, and Busch has fun riffing on our assumptions (most gleaned from the media, if we’re not Catholic) about nuns.
Some references date back decades: The portrayal of Mother Superior surely teases the “Singing Nun” Debbie Reynolds played 50 years ago. But Busch can be relatively up to date, too: The German visitor’s subplot ties into a “Da Vinci Code” conspiracy about the suppression of a feminist figure in church history.
Except for the restrained Blakely, all the performers skip, stalk and swoon with glee, practicing the art of overacting. (It is an art, when you mean to do it.)
Director Matt Cosper inspires this zaniness to a high level, and I can’t help wondering whether some of the touches come from him and not Busch. Surely he or set designer Chip Decker came up with the Whac-a-Mohel sign at the church bazaar – a joke most Christians may not get.
Spend time studying that set, if you can, especially the “stained glass” paintings by Stan Peal. I liked the window that showed disciples who heard, saw and spoke no evil, posed under a flying dove and an anachronistic Facebook emblem and Vimeo symbol. The church has to stay current, right?
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