"Nunsense," a musical comedy by Dan Goggin, is not the kind of production one usually sees at Brown. "Theater around here tends to get kind of high-brow," director Mariagrazia LaFauci '12 said. That's certainly not an issue with this show, running at Production Workshop Nov. 5-8.
"Nunsense" takes place at the theater of the Mount St. Helen's Catholic School, where 52 of the roughly 70 nuns of the Little Sisters of Hoboken recently died due to the questionable cooking of their chef, Sister Julia, Child of God. Five of the survivors put together a variety show to raise money for the burial of four of the dead nuns, who are presently housed in the convent's freezer.
What ensues is a lot of wackiness involving feuds between the nuns, all of whom are shown to have flaws and very temporal desires. Sister Mary Leo (Karin Nilo '14) dreams of becoming a famous dancer; Sister Robert Anne (Amanda Vernon '12) hopes to progress from understudy to a starring role in the show; Sister Hubert (Blair Perry '11) longs to be Mother Superior and turn the Little Sisters of Hoboken into "the Big Sisters of Newark." As they stumble their way through their show, their petty grievances and long-standing grudges all eventually come to the surface.
Really, though, the plot is secondary; it's more a way to string together songs and jokes than an essential part of the production. The song-and-dance numbers are show-stopping fun; really, the play would be worth the (nonexistent) price of admission for no other reason than to see a line of nuns dancing a can-can, the reverend mother singing a burlesque-inspired number outfitted with a red feathered boa or one sister singing a duet with a foul-mouthed puppet. The actors own their cheesiness, exhibiting overly expressive faces and over-the-top acting.
The jokes, which come thick and fast throughout the show, do not concern themselves especially with political correctness. There are throw-away lines about missionary positions, leper colonies and "The Catholic Girl's Guide to an Immaculate Conception." Sister Robert Anne entertains the audience with her impressions of imaginary nuns Sister Pocahontas, Sister Heidi and Attila the Nun.
The light, fast-paced comedy takes a turn for the even more absurd at the end of the first act. Reverend Mother Superior Mary Regina, played with great commitment by Anne Kocher '14, goes into a drug-induced, pratfall-heavy soliloquy for no apparent reason other than to give Kocher some practice acting as broadly as possible. Such broad physical comedy is necessary for the scene, so audience members who do not take pleasure in watching public embarrassment will have to grit their teeth for a few minutes.
Fortunately for the pacing of the show, this story line is mostly dropped in the second act, which continues the formula of lots of songs, lots of jokes and not much plot. The deus ex machina solution to the nuns' financial woes is mainly important because it triggers another ensemble musical number, which showcases the impressive gospel stylings of Perry in the best song of the show.
"Nunsense" is an interactive performance, with the audience taking on the role of nuns' audience. Guests are quizzed about the history of the nuns' order, revealed in an early number; they are approached by the actors seeking approval; they are asked to contribute to a collection plate and sparkly hats passed around the house. The show "brings the audience in in a nonhostile way," LaFauci said, adding that some shows "attack" the audience with their message. "Nunsense," on the other hand, just says "Hey! Howya doin'? We're nuns!," she said.
LaFauci said she chose "Nunsense" as her directorial debut due in large part to its silliness, but also because it "gets at the heart of what musical theater wants to achieve." With a background in musical theater during high school, she said she wanted to direct in a style with which she was familiar.
A lot of the time, though, "we just came to rehearsal and played," LaFauci said. The actors' training involved clowning work and " ‘Looney Toons'-style running around."
"Take off your Brown thinking cap and just have two hours of fun," she advised. Indeed, it's the best way to enjoy this broad, meandering, but eminently enjoyable show.
"Nunsense" will run in T. F. Green Hall Nov. 5-8. Admission is free for Brown students.