Saturday, July 13, 2024

News and Ideas Worth Sharing

HomeArts & EntertainmentTHEATRE REVIEW: Two...

THEATRE REVIEW: Two Durangs at BTG: ‘Sister Mary Ingatius,’ promiscuous thoughts, attitudes redefine tragi-comedy

This production, featuring so much talent, is about the best it can be in a world where our expectations of people in power is so often betrayed these days.

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

“As a child, I was taught by nuns, and then in high school I was taught by Benedictine priests. I really rather liked the nuns. They were sort of warm, though they were fairly crazy too. Line.”

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

In Christopher Durang’s play “The Actor’s Nightmare” — one of two plays by Durang now onstage at the Berkshire Theatre Group’s Unicorn Theatre in Stockbridge — a man named George Spelvin realizes quickly that he is caught in a situation that is not only uncomfortable, it is impossible. He is an accountant caught onstage in a theater he doesn’t recognize about to go on in a play he doesn’t know and hasn’t rehearsed. He is replacing America’s foremost actor of the late 19th century, Edwin Booth, and he is acting opposite Sarah Siddons, Dame Ellen Terry and Sir Henry Irving. And the stage manager is no help. This is the actors’ nightmare — all actors.

Durang’s cleverness and his theater knowledge collide midway through the play with his Catholic background and Spelvin’s lines — combining Shakespeare, Noel Coward, Robert Bolt, the Bible and Beckett — lead to an epiphany and it all ends badly for Spelvin. One of Durang’s brightest comedies, this play is usually done in conjunction with a much longer one-act, “Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You,” as it is here. The combination is desirable because of the setup lines in “…Nightmare” that key in the more famous play about a nun and her former students. Either play can stand alone, but the combination points up the humor in the second play to a much greater extent.

Under the fine direction of Matthew Penn, Matt Sullivan shines as Spelvin. His dissipating composure plays out in his Hamlet costume and his responses to the other actors — who keep throwing him cues but never his next line — are hilarious. Particularly good at the confusing line readings is Harriet Harris, whose vocal tone, so insistent and consistent in its implication that Spelvin knows the next line, gets as many laughs as the lines themselves. She is particularly brilliant as Amanda in “Private Lives,” asking again and again “How was China?”, which is not the funniest line Noel Coward ever wrote, but here, in her hands with the constantly increasing fury that Penn has coached from her, the line becomes an absolute treasure.

Tom Story is delightful as Irving, playing Shakespeare’s Horatio and later Bolt’s Executioner. Ariana Venturi is the funniest Ellen Terry and Anna O’Donoghue brings the stage manager into brilliant life with each and every entrance, with or without script in hand to aid Spelvin. As the play becomes more and more manic, in the way that dreams often do, the relevance of the main character’s name becomes more and more obvious: George Spelvin is the name Actors Equity provides for the anonymous walk-on in a professional setting. Rarely has a G.S. ever been asked to assume an important, not to say leading, role but, in this nightmare, that is exactly what has occurred. That fact alone triggers the finale of the second play on the bill, “Sister Mary Ignatius.”

Harriet Harris as Sister Mary Ignatius in the Berkshire Theatre Group production of ‘Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You.’ Photo: Emma Rothenberg-Ware

Harris takes the lead in “Sister Mary Ignatius” and begins as the most benign, sweet-aspected human being imaginable. She is the dream nun, the caring instructor, the devoted religious soul who may be a bit too devoted to her calling. By the end of the play, however, she has transformed into the maniacal nun of horror movies who imposes her will by whatever means possible in order to make her points about devotion, God and dogma. Watching Harris transition from one interpretation to the other is a lesson in comic acting. She is brilliant, and lighting designer Alan C. Edwards has managed to maintain a glow about her at all times.

With her favorite 7-year-old student at her side, Levi Hall as Thomas, she lectures to all of us assembled in the hall on the Bible, heaven, purgatory, hell and related topics until four former students arrive to present a pageant about the birth of Jesus.

It is the section that follows their playlet that brings the entire evening together emotionally. They are all disgruntled adults who feel they were betrayed by the nun. Aloysius Benheim, ignored by her to the point of humiliation, is played by Sullivan, whose earlier starring role  as the eponymous Spelvin in the nightmare play that ends so badly ends critically badly in this play, as well, the former dream almost a portent of what has transpired in the second play.

Anna O’Donoghue as Diane Symonds has a wonderful speech about her own problems in a Catholic world and she nearly stops the show. Tom Story, with subtle mannerisms and voice patterns, proves the tragic figure among the graduates and he does so quite brilliantly, As the girl with no self respect to speak of, Ariana Venturi makes Philomena Rostovitch into a memorable character, a woman who has little hope of survival in this world.

Director Matthew Penn has delivered wonderfully this package of promiscuous thoughts and attitudes that redefine the term tragi-comedy. Hunter Kaczorowski’s costumes, particularly in the first play, are brilliant realizations of characters playing characters. Alan C. Edwards’ sets are excellent and the fight choreography by Eric Hill is wonderful, both precise and ridiculously funny at the same time.

I have never really liked the way Sister Mary transforms. However, I have always had a modest fear of nuns, so I do enjoy seeing the way Durang exposes my own “nightmare” about them; it just makes me uncomfortable having my personal fears confirmed on a stage. This production, featuring so much talent, is about the best it can be in a world where our expectations of people in power is so often betrayed these days. It’s a play about our times. AMEN.


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 or call the box office at (413) 997-4444.


The Edge Is Free To Read.

But Not To Produce.

Continue reading

AT THE TRIPLEX: To the stars

Space was made for movies. NASA was not.

DANCE REVIEW: Ballet du Grand Théâtre de Genève demonstrates the past, present, and future of ballet at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival

This week, Ballet du Grand Théâtre de Genève at the Pillow most definitely represents a categorically different offshoot of the present and future of ballet from that of The Royal Ballet, and of dance in general.

The Edge Is Free To Read.

But Not To Produce.