The Divine Sister
By Charles Busch
Directed by Larry Coen
October 21 - November 19, 2011
The Divine Sister is an inspired homage to every Hollywood film ever made about nuns. Written by Charles Busch, the comic genius behind such classics as Die, Mommie, Die!; Psycho Beach Party; and Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, this gleefully twisted tale tells the story of an indomitable Mother Superior trying to cope with a young postulant experiencing "visions," a sensitive schoolboy in need of mentoring, a mysterious nun visiting from Berlin, and a former suitor intent on luring her away from her vows.
Estimated Run Time: 1 hour and 40 minutes without an intermission
Warning: This show contains adult language and content.
SASHA CASTROVERDE (Agnes) is delighted to be making her SpeakEasy debut. Other credits include Fanny Squeers/Madeline Bray inThe Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (Lyric Stage Company), Elvira in Blithe Spirit, Ariel in The Tempest, Player in Shipwrecked! An Entertainment, and Andree in Gigi (Winnipesaukee Playhouse), Gertrude/Lord Caversham in An Ideal Husband (Bad Habit Productions), Tracy Lord in The Philadelphia Story (Emerson Stage), and a variety of roles in Bunbury: A Serious Play for Trivial People and The Monster Tales (Mill 6 Collaborative). Originally from Memphis, Tennessee, Sasha received her BA from Emerson College and now calls Boston home.
ELLEN COLTON* (Mrs. Levinson/Timothy) is delighted to return to SpeakEasy having appeared here in The Women and Brooklyn Boy. Other Credits: Shear Madness cast member since 1997; Well, Light Up The Sky, Tale of the Allergist's Wife, Kong's Night Out (New Century Theatre, Northampton); The Porch (Lyric Stage, Stoneham Theatre, City Stage, Majestic Theatre; Over the River and Through the Woods, Kong's Night Out (Lyric Stage Company); Witness for the Prosecution (Foothills Theatre). She is a two time winner of the IRNE awards. Recent movie credits: Zookeeper, The Company Men, Invention of Lying. For the last 20 years, she has served as secretary of the Screen Actors' Guild, treasurer of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists and vice-president of Actors' Equity Assn. For the New England area.
PAULA PLUM* (Sister Acacius) SpeakEasy: Body Awareness, Reckless, The Savannah Disputation, The History Boys andThe New Century. Lyric Stage: Blithe Spirit, Miss Witherspoon, Three Tall Women; The Goat, or Who is Sylvia, The Heiress, and Sideman. A founding member of the Actors' Shakespeare Project, Paula has played Cleopatra in Antony & Cleopatra, Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, Margaret inRichard III, and Lady Macbeth. She has appeared in Wit for Lyric West; Faith Healer, Molly Sweeney, Happy Days, and Breath of Life for Gloucester Stage; and No Exit, Ivanov, Mother Courage, and Lysistrata at the American Repertory Theater. She has been honored with three Elliot Norton Awards, four IRNES and, in 2003, was named a Distinguished Alumna of Boston University's School for the Arts. A recipient of the Fox Actor Fellowship, Paula is currently in the second of a three-year actor residency with SpeakEasy Stage. She is married to actor Richard Snee.
JEFFERY ROBERSON aka VARLA JEAN MERMAN* (Mother Superior) Broadway: Mary Sunshine, Chicago. Off-Broadway: Lucky Guy with Leslie Jordan. Regional: Christine, Phantom of the OPRAH (Elliott Norton Award), The Mystery of Irma Vep directed by Michael Wilson, (Long Wharf, Hartford Stage). TV: Ugly Betty, Project Runway, All My Children and Improve Your History With Varla Jean for the network launch of Logo. Film: Girls Will Be Girls (Best Actor Awards at Outfest and Aspen HBO Film Festivals), upcoming sequel Girls Will Be Girls 2012 and upcoming feature mockumentary Varla Jean and the Mushroomheads! Solo shows in concert halls and cabarets across the world, from the Sydney Opera House to Carnegie Hall. New solo show The Book of Merman debuts in Provincetown this August at The Art House. www.VarlaOnLine.com
KATHY ST. GEORGE* (Sister Walburga / Mrs. Macduffie) (Calliope/Aphrodite) is delighted to return to SpeakEasy, having appeared here as Judy Denmark in RUTHLESS! and Vienna in JOHNNY GUITAR. Recent credits include 42nd STREET at the Stoneham Theatre and THE PRODUCERS at the Riverside Theatre in Vero Beach, FL. Kathy has appeared in two Broadway productions of FIDDLER ON THE ROOF: the 1981 revival at Lincoln Center starring Herschel Bernardi, and the 1991 Tony Award-winning production at the Gershwin Theatre starring Topol, directed by Jerome Robbins. She has appeared Off-Broadway in I LOVE YOU, YOU'RE PERFECT, NOW CHANGE at the Westside Theatre , Off-Off Broadway in APHRODITE at Theatre for the New City, and in five National Tours. She has enjoyed performing in the long-running Boston hits MENOPAUSE THE MUSICAL, RESPECT, and SHEAR MADNESS and at the Lyric Stage, New Rep, Merrimack Rep and others. Upcoming: DEAR MISS GARLAND at the Stoneham Theatre, June 2012. www.kathystgeorge.com
CHRISTOPHER MICHAEL BROPHY* (Jeremy/Brother Venerius) is pleased to be back at SpeakEasy, where he as appeared in Take Me Out (IRNE Award – Best Supporting Actor); Five by Tenn (Elliot Norton Award – Outstanding Production) and the New England premiere of Some Men. Chris has also appeared in productions for New Rep; Boston Theatre Works; Shakespeare Now; Foothills Theatre; Stoneham Theatre; and Theatre Espresso. Last December, he starred in the one man show Santaland Diaries for the Vineyard Playhouse.
*Member of Actors' Equity Association (AEA), the union of professional actors and stage managers in the United States.
LARRY COEN (Director) Larry received a 2010 Elliot Norton Award for directing Phantom of the Oprah for Gold Dust Orphans. Additional directing credits: The Understudy for Lyric Stage Co; Ruthless! for Speakeasy; Twilight Zone and Willie Wanker and the Hershey Highway (co-directed with James Byrne) for Gold Dust Orphans; Shel Shocked, by the late Shel Silverstein, for Market Theater; MLK: We Are The Dream for American Place Theater; FAX of Life for Manhattan Punchline. With David Crane, he wrote the Broadway comedy Epic Proportions. Larry is Artistic Director of City Stage Co., which provides free arts education programs and performances for low-income kids and families.
ARSHAN GAILUS (Original Music/Sound Design) makes his SpeakEasy Stage debut. Area credits include 1001, GRIMM, The Overwhelming,After the Quake, and Voyeurs de Venus (Company One), and The Understudy, Blithe Spirit, and Legacy of Light (Lyric Stage Company). Arshan has also served as House Sound Engineer and Sound Supervisor for the Huntington Theatre Company at the Calderwood Pavilion and is active in the Boston independent video game community as a composer, sound designer, and game designer. Arshan holds a B.S. in Music from MIT. Special thanks to Mark, Tanya, Siragan, and Cole for all their love and support.
DANIEL H. JENTZEN (Lighting Designer) is thrilled to be back at SpeakEasy for The Divine Sister, having designed the lighting for Striking 12 andThe Savannah Disputation. Other recent designs include Steel Magnolias (Stoneham Theatre), SubUrbia (UMass Lowell), Annie (Wheelock Family Theatre), and A Christmas Celtic Sojourn, presented annually by WGBH. He has also created lighting for Cirque le Masque, The Annie Moses Band, Cherish the Ladies, Harvard Business School, and the Romance Writers of America. He holds a BFA from Carnegie Mellon University, teaches seminars on lighting design at the Eagle Hill School, and does research in cognitive neuroscience at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. He sends love and thanks to Shelley, Ken, Julie, and his friends; and to you, for supporting SpeakEasy Stage Company!
CHARLES SCHOONMAKER** (Costume Design) Previously at SpeakEasy: Nine,The Light in the Piazza, Reckless, [title of show] and The Wrestling Patient. New York productions include Limonade tous les Jours at the Cell, 9/11 Portraits at the Union Square, and Portrait of Jennie at the Henry Street Settlement. Works on Boston stages include A Long and Winding Road at The Huntington, Tarzan at North Shore,Legacy of Light, Grey Gardens at The Lyric, Speed the Plow, The Clean House at The New Rep, Fever Chart and Harriet Jacobs at Underground Railway, Italian Girl in Algiers and Trouble in Tahiti for Boston Midsummer Opera. Other theatres: Endgame, No Wake, The Einstein Project, Faith Healer for The Berkshire Theatre Company; Love Song, Blackbird and The Nibroc Trilogy at The Chester Theatre Company; La Cage aux Folles and Cagney! at The Riverside Theatre in Vero Beach, Florida, Miss Margarida's Way at Bay Street Theatre. Dance Work: The Limon Company, The Julliard School, Boston Conservatory, The Nashville Ballet, The Richmond Ballet, and seven seasons as resident costume designer at Jacob's Pillow. Television: Another World, All My Children, As The World Turns. Four Daytime Emmy Awards. MFA from NYU, on the faculty at Brandeis University.
CRISTINA TODESCO** (Scenic Design) is pleased to be working with Speakeasy again after designing last season's Body Awareness. Previous Speakeasy credits:The New Century, Reckless. Recent designs include: Twelfth Night (Actor's Shakespeare Project), Love Song (Orfeo Group),1001 (Company One), Farragut North, Opus (Olney Theater Center), The Last Five Years (NewRep), The Understudy (Lyric), Circle Mirror Transformation (Huntington). Cristina is the recipient of two Elliot Norton Awards for outstanding design; The Aliens (Company One, 2011), and The Clean House (NewRep, 2008). She received her MFA in scenic design from BU's School of Theater Arts where she currently teaches.
SpeakEasy Press Contact:
Director of Marketing,
Press and Public Relations
Email: use our Contact Us form
Basic Show Information
The Divine Sister
By Charles Busch
Directed by Larry Coen
October 21 - November 19, 2011
An Interview with Charles Busch
In 2000, playwright/actor/director Charles Busch was honored with a star on the Playwrights’ Sidewalk outside the Lucille Lortel Theatre on Christopher Street in New York City, joining an illustrious roster of playwrights whose work has filled the theatres of Off-Broadway. Busch’s impact was first felt there when Vampire Lesbians of Sodom began its 5-year run at the Provincetown Playhouse in 1985. More send-ups of popular movie genres followed, all written by and starring Charles Busch as the leading lady. After also finding success on Broadway, in Hollywood, on TV, and as a fiction writer, Busch returned to his Off-Broadway roots last year with The Divine Sister.
What set you to writing another movie spoof?
Well, every couple of years I get this great need to put on a play for the simple reason to have fun. At the time, I had just finished writing, of all things, a Lifetime TV movie, and having been tortured by a whole bunch of executives for about six months until they finally decided that the whole movie was “too Charles Busch,” I needed to cleanse my palate doing something just for fun. So I gathered all my favorite colleagues who I enjoy hanging out with and contacted a place called Theatre For the New City, a very funky downtown space where I’ve had a relationship for years. And then I had to write them a play. I got the booking, so I had to write a play.
Why a spoof of nun movies?
I wasn’t raised with any kind of religious background at all, but I grew up just loving any classic Hollywood film that had to do with religion or nuns or miracles. Since I had never met a nun or experienced the strictness of a Catholic school, I could write this play as a valentine to the movies I love. It’s not a blistering satire or indictment against the Catholic Church or organized religion. It’s a celebration of the peculiar ways that Hollywood has handled religious themes. Hollywood never really had the right vocabulary to deal with religious themes, so I find it funny and fascinating to track the portrayal of nuns through the last 50 years of film.
Why did you choose to set The Divine Sister in the mid-sixties?
When I write these film-genre plays, there’s a certain amount of personal fantasy involved, and I thought, wouldn’t it be fun to be the late-career Rosalind Russell in The Trouble with Angels and wear a habit as a costume? Therefore, it had to take place in the sixties. Nuns don’t really even—well, I guess nuns exist today—but they rarely dress in the classic habit.
Did you spend a lot of time watching movies when you were a kid?
It was an addiction. Like many gay kids, I had a rather isolated childhood and lost myself in the world of classic Hollywood films which were so available. I’m the product of a completely movie-permissive childhood. I stayed up until the middle of the night watching The Late Show and The Late, Late Show. I really did all my research for my whole career before junior high school, so now when I take on a certain film genre, I just do a little brush-up.
How did you manage to find your very unique place in the theatre?
I never thought for a second that it wouldn’t work out, which was slightly insane because I was a rather odd type. When I was at Northwestern and began to question whether I really wanted to be an actor in other people’s plays, I would come home for vacation back to New York where I started being exposed to more experimental theatre; in particular, the work of Charles Ludlam. A great light went on when I saw him in a play he wrote called Eunuch of the Forbidden City. It was an outrageous, decadent, downtown kind of piece involving drag and opera and classic Hollywood and theatre references. All the things that fascinated me, he was actually referencing on stage. So I thought, “Yes, maybe that’s who I am, as well. I should create my own theatre.” My imagination held no bounds.
It took awhile to really, really figure out “who am I?” but I always was convinced that I had something great to offer, and that if I pursued it without deviation from my path, continued to grow and learn and get better, it just had to work out. I stayed in Chicago after I graduated and started writing plays and putting them on in bars. Right away I sensed a real connection between me and the audience. I could feel it and it was electric. My twenties were very difficult, and at the same time, very encouraging. I would book myself around the country in these small non-profit theatres.
Did it take a long time to evolve into only playing the female characters in your pieces?
I always had an affinity for playing female roles. When I was living in Chicago, I started a theatre company, very briefly, over the course of one year, built along the lines of Ludlam’s company where I was the author and the leading lady. But it was the wrong group of people who didn’t really want to do that kind of work and resented being my supporting cast. So I became a solo performer for the next seven years. I had to play all the characters, but the female characters were the most vivid, and I played them the best. Occasionally, a very insightful critic would see that my imagination only really got going when I was playing the female characters, and Ludlam, who would give me advice occasionally, once said, “Why don’t you just play the female character?” I just scoffed.
But I booked myself by chance to do a performance in a little club on the Lower East Side. I wanted to do something really different and outrageous, decadent and flamboyant. So I wrote a half hour sketch and cast it with friends of mine. It felt awfully good to play the one female character and having other guys play the roles that didn’t really interest me.
Was that the first time you used all the trappings and were in drag?
During the abortive experience in Chicago, I was in full drag. It’s interesting that my solo career was bookended by two experiences that were so similar and yet completely opposite. In Chicago I was doing the exact same kind of material in a sustained situation where I was the playwright and the star and had somebody else directing, but the others didn’t share a similar sensibility or training so it ended in terrible bitterness. The second troupe was a group of people who loved me and thought I had something to offer. They wanted to play in my yard. And then this wonderful miracle happened to us. Almost from the start, we attracted a cult audience — by the second weekend. Somehow we were in the right place at the right time with the right group of people sharing a dream, so great things happened. We ended up moving Vampire Lesbians of Sodom to Off-Broadway where it became a big success, ran for years, and has given me a career ever since.
Nuns on the Silver Screen
The Divine Sister is set in the mid-sixties, when nuns were ubiquitous in the community, fixtures in education and medicine, and well-represented in of some of Hollywood’s most successful mid-century movies. This was a time when a nun could be a true cinema hero—not the butt of a joke or a criminal in disguise—but a brave, sensitive woman filled with heart and intelligence. Perhaps the ultimate women’s films, the popularity of nun movies stems in part from the fact that, between the end of World War II to the emergence of women’s liberation in the seventies, nuns were a terrific dramatic device to tell stories about women that weren’t focused on getting or keeping a man. The hierarchies in these stories were all female, and nuns could be sent to the remotest parts of the planet and still tell believable tales. The Divine Sister lovingly spoofs these films—and takes a few jabs at some more contemporary ones too.
It’s no surprise that for many of us, The Sound of Music (1965) is what springs to mind first when we think of movie nuns. After all, it is one of the most popular movies of all time, and, beginning in 1979, aired annually on NBC for twenty years running. While there are some great shots of the Nonnberg Abbey in Salzburg where Maria von Trapp was a postulant, the movie doesn’t reveal much about what really goes on inside those walls.
For that, we turn to The Nun’s Story (1959), adapted from the novel by Kathryn Hulme and starring Audrey Hepburn as Sister Luke. The movie provides an unusual glimpse into the centuries-old process designed to redirect the independent nature of young women to a life of personal spirituality and service to God. Dancers from the Rome Opera Ballet corps were hired to play nuns in the early scenes of the film, which were choreographed to capture the complex convent rituals.
Charles Busch loved The Nun’s Story growing up, as well as two other films from the previous decade with a strong spiritual element:
The Song of Bernadette (1943) offers a young Jennifer Jones, who won an Oscar for her portrayal of Bernadette Soubirous, whose visions became known as the Miracle of Lourdes. The novel by Franz Werfel, that was the basis of the film, spent more than a year on the New York Times Best Seller List, clocking 13 weeks in first position.
The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945), that year’s highest grossing movie, starred Ingrid Bergman as Mother Superior and Bing Crosby as her nemesis Father O’Malley, a role he reprised from Going My Way (1943) that had won him the Academy Award. Forced to work together to save a soon-to-be condemned New York City Catholic school, the pair seeks financial support from the irascible businessman who owns the office building next door. One of his favorite films, Martin Scorsese says he cries every time he watches it.
Although set in 1964, a more recent film that also pits a traditional nun against a charismatic priest who’s more in touch with the community is Doubt (2008), John Patrick Shanley’s own adaptation of his Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning play. Cherry Jones won the Best Actress Tony for her portrayal of Sister Aloysius on stage; Meryl Streep, her counterpart in the film, received the Critics Choice Award.
Another element sometimes found in nun movies is the conflict between the spirit and the flesh. The prime example would be Black Narcissus (1947), an erotically-charged British psychological drama starring Deborah Kerr and Kathleen Byron as the leaders of a small group of Anglican nuns sent to a remote Himalayan outpost to establish a school and infirmary in an abandoned brothel. The sensuality of their exotic environment and the disturbing presence of a handsome British agent lead to harrowing outcomes.Kerr begins to dwell on a romance she had as a young woman before entering the convent, and Byron loses it completely in all-stops-out, sex-starved insanity. Kerr’s flashback scenes were removed for the original U.S. release so as not to offend the Catholic Legion of Decency.
A much later film that deals with another young sister whose grasp on reality may be tentative is the mystery/thriller Agnes of God (1985). Sister Agnes (Meg Tilley) is a novice who gives birth to a baby under mysterious circumstances. The baby is found dead and a court-appointed psychiatrist (Jane Fonda) is sent to investigate. She must contend with Agnes’ protector, the Mother Superior (Anne Bancroft) who raises the possibility that a miraculous conception had occurred. The movie was adapted by John Pielmeier from his own 1982 play.
Another genre of nun movies that emerged in the 1960s — as Vatican II was taking hold and beginning to modernize the Catholic Church — was that of the madcap, fun-loving nun.
The Trouble with Angels (1966) is a comedy that starred Hayley Mills as a rambunctious student at a Catholic boarding school under the thumb of Mother Superior Rosalind Russell. Best remembered now as Mame Dennis in Auntie Mame and a fast-talking newspaper reporter in His Girl Friday, Russell was a perfect choice for the part, given her air of authority and sense of humor. Directed by Ida Lupino, the film also featured Marge Redmond and Mary Wickes as teacher/nuns in the math classroom and the gym. When Hayley Mills opted out of doing the sequel, Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows (1968), she was replaced by Stella Stevens.
The Singing Nun (1966), starring Debbie Reynolds, is a highly fictionalized account of the Belgian nun who became known as “Sister Smile” after she sang “Dominique” on The Ed Sullivan Show and it rose to the #1 spot on the Top 40 chart—only to be unseated by the Beatles. Greer Garson and Agnes Moorehead co-starred as fellow nuns. This was Reynolds’ last movie under her MGM contract.
In 1965, there were 180,000 nuns in the United States. Today that number has declined to around 70,000 and the average age of that population is 70.