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THEATRE REVIEW: BTG’s ‘Sister Mary Ignatius’ ingeniously mixes humor and anger

If “The Actor’s Nightmare” ranks among the blackest of farcical comedy, then “Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You” is among the blackest of black comedy.

Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You and The Actor’s Nightmare
By Christopher Durang
Directed by Matthew Penn

Two very good reasons to see Christopher Durang’s two one-act comedies double-billed as “Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All To You” are lead actor Matt Sullivan in the first short play “The Actor’s Nightmare” and Berkshire favorite Harriet Harris in the second — and title — play. Another reason is to see how ingeniously funny and angry can mix.

In “The Actor’s Nightmare,” Sullivan plays Aloysius Benheim, an accountant who improbably finds himself onstage in a play for which he is utterly unqualified and unprepared. Durang plumbs the not-that-uncommon bad dream of not being “good enough” and brings a farcical scenario to a morbid conclusion. Along the way, Sullivan hilariously stumbles as Hamlet through a Noel Coward-style farce (which changes plot), colliding with a bitchingly arch (and I’m not just referring to her eyebrows) diva (played by the reliably arch Harriet Harris), a supercilious Shakespearian ham (a wonderful Tom Story) and a lunatic mother-in-garbage-can from Becket’s “Endgame” (a delightful Ariana Venturi). Durang, as usual, satirizes both his Catholic background (out of sheer desperation, Sullivan breaks into the act of contrition) and, with nonstop inside baseball allusions, theater and all its “carnie folk.” Sullivan negotiates the role with perfect timing and mirth that transcends Aloysius’ fate.

Matt Sullivan and Ariana Venturi in the Berkshire Theatre Group production of ‘The Actor’s Nightmare.’ Photo: Emma Rothenberg-Ware.

If “The Actor’s Nightmare” ranks among the blackest of farcical comedy, then “Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You” is among the blackest of black comedy. Harriet Harris in the title role completely owns this 50-minute play from beginning to end, but is at her absolute best in the opening 20-minute monologue where she explains sin and heaven-purgatory-hell (limbo, too). Her zany, pre-Ecumenical Council (1950s) zealotry gets a little darker when she’s visited by 7-year-old Thomas (a very well-trained Levi Hall) whom she taught in grammar school. Creepily, Sister Ignatius rewards Thomas with cookies, as one might train Spot with “doggie treats,” for perfect recitation of the “Baltimore Catechism.” Matters turn black when four of Sister’s students (Sullivan plus cast from “The Actors Nightmare”), now adult, show up, laying at Sister’s feet lifetime experiences with alcoholism, abortion, homosexuality and spousal abuse. Sister Ignatius isn’t forgiving. What some will do in service of Jesus Christ!

Tom Story and Anna O’Donoghue in the Berkshire Theatre Group production of ‘Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You.’ Photo: Emma Rothenberg-Ware.

The obvious satirical target of Durang’s harangue is the institution of the Roman Catholic Church. First staged in 1979, now some 40 years later, “Sister Ignatius” in its specificity might be regarded as a period piece. Not so. Durang’s play reminds that today’s Sister Ignatiuses aren’t Roman Catholic nuns; they’re religious fundamentalists worldwide and non-Christian-behaving American Christians spewing the same prejudice, intolerance and hate. Morbid as it is, Durang’s humor endures. His anger still applies.

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Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You and The Actor’s Nightmare play at the Unicorn Theatre on Berkshire Theatre Group’s Stockbridge campus, 6 East St., Stockbridge, Massachusetts, through Friday, Aug. 31. For information and tickets, see the Berkshire Edge calendar, go online to BerkshireTheatreGroup.org or call the box office at (413) 997-4444.

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