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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
Sister Mary Ignatius Explains it all for You and The Actor's Nightmare

Was Jesus effeminate?— A question from the audience
Yes!— Sister Mary Ignatius —
Harriet Harris
Harriet Harris
A scathingly brutal comedy. Sister Mary Ignatius Explains it all for You by Christopher Durang at Berkshire Theatre Group's Unicorn Theatre has not mellowed since 1979. If anything, its satirical target, the Roman Catholic Church, is fighting recriminations for decades of unchecked sexual predation by its clergy.

The zealous, even insane, Sister Mary Ignatius has grown in stature since her inception. We recognize her as an icon of rabid religious and political fundamentalism in America and abroad. Her sincere wide-eyed defense of hatred and bigotry seems more virulent than during the play's first incarnation as some of her arguments are heard on the nightly news to explain the irrational violence which seems to rock the modern world.

Harriet Harris is the cloyingly sweet Sister Mary Ignatius who, in her opening twenty-minute monologue, uses an amateurish hand-drawn poster to explain the Roman Catholic belief system of Heaven, Hell and Purgatory. The convoluted lecture is hysterically funny when she answers questions from note cards given to her by the her student audience. Her views represent pre-ecumenical council Catholicism prior to Pope John XXIII's overhaul of Catholic dogma unquestioned since the Middle Ages. Needless to say, he is not her favorite pope.

Sister Mary Ignatius painstakingly distinguishes between the virgin birth and the immaculate conception along with definitive explanations of venial and moral sin.. She seems kind and eager to share her views with the audience knowing that her opinion is, of course, the only correct interpretation of God's truths. Even the most uninformed will have a basic concept of Catholic theology.

Her young protege, Levi Hall as seven-year-old Thomas, is summoned intermittently as a pet dog to recite catechism answers and then rewarded by cookies and a little cuddle. He even reads a partial list of sinners going to Hell (such as Zsa Zsa Gabor, David Bowie, and Comden and Green) in case anyone doubted her self-righteous condemnations.

It's rather innocent fun until four former students arrive to confront her hypocrisy and their psychological pain caused by Sister's lack of compassion and adherence to dogma. They raise the question again, "If God is all powerful, why does he allow evil in the world?" The four students' lives have evolved into various forms of dysfunction not acceptable to Catholic teaching and therefore to Sister's mind deserve no understanding or sympathy.

Durang is the author of many blistering satires. With Sister Mary Ignatius, though it may not have been his original intent, he has captured the lengths to which zealots worldwide rationalize their ungodly acts of crimes against humanity. His The Actor's Nightmare kicks off this "cozy" evening with a character, George Spelvin, (Matt Sullivan) hopelessly lost on a strange stage in a play he has never rehearsed. For non-theatre insiders, George Spelvin is the name used for an actor who is a stand-in, working a dual role, breaking Actor's Equity rules, etc. It is the alias for anybody or nobody. The poor actor finds himself in shifting moments of plays such as Private Lives, Hamlet, A Man for all Seasons and Beckett's Endgame. The panicked Spelvin calls for cues to help him get a foothold on the whirling chaos; the other frustrated actors and stage manager berate or even smack him for his failure to deliver the correct line. His stage companions sport the names of famous thespians of the past such as Sarah Siddons and Edwin Booth. For clever theater audiences these references evoke knowing reactions.

Sullivan's George dressed as Hamlet is so flummoxed that he finally resorts to sing- ing the "ABC" song; it's an actor's bad dream without escape. His pathetic, "What play are we doing?" echoes the existential panic of an Everyman. Like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in Tom Stoppard's play, he remains trapped and clueless.

Harriet Harris along along with Anna O'Donoghue, Tom Story, Ariana Venturi and Matt Sullivan, focus Durang's wit and drive his intent throughout both plays. Harris has a face which telegraphs her sly intelligence along with impeccable timing and nuanced delivery.

Matthew Penn's solid staging and attention to detail keeps the humor afloat in the blackest of black comedic expression. Durang's forty-year-old plays are still as zany, though perhaps even more thought provoking; Sister Mary Ignatius and her response to criticism represents a great many frenzied ideologues.

Alan C. Edwards, who designed the set and lighting, has kept the space open, allowing the actors to move easily around the relatively few set pieces while his lighting bathes the stage in a warm glow. The costumes, including one for a two actor-camel, underscores the personalities of the various characters. Alexander Sovronsky's sound and original music complement the events on the stage.

Given today's news, it would appear that Durang's Sister Mary Ignatius will continue to resonate with audiences as religious fundamentalists continue to spread hatred and intolerance worldwide in an attempt to force conformity with their values.

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Sister Mary Ignatius Explains it all for You and The Actor's Nightmare
By Christopher Durang
Directed by Mathew Penn
Cast: Levi Hall (Thomas) Harriet Harris (Sarah Siddons/Sister Mary Ignatius) Anna O'Donoghue (Meg/Diane Symonds) Tom Story (Henry Irving/Gary Sullivan) Matt Sullivan (George Spelvin/Aloysius Benheim)( Ariana Venturi (Dame Ellen Terry/Philomena Rostovitch)
Scenic and Lighting Designer: Alan C. Edwards
Costume Designer: Hunter Kaczorowski
Sound Designer and Composer: Alexander Sovronsky
Fight Choreographer: Eric Hill
Stage Manager: Carolyn Richer
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes; one intermission
Berkshire Theatre Group's Unicorn Theatre, Stockbridge, MA

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