DIVINE SISTER is Divine at Hell in a Handbag

DIVINE SISTER is Divine at Hell in a Handbag

(front) Charlotte Mae Ellison, (second row, l to r) Maria Stephens and Levi Holloway and (back row, l to r) Ed Jones, David Cerda and Chad in Hell in a Handbag Productions’ Chicago premiere of THE DIVINE SISTER, by Charles Busch, directed by Shade Murray. Photo by Rick Aguilar Studios.

Review: THE DIVINE SISTER at Hell in a Handbag

By Smyra Yawn

Chicago theater boasts no shortage of pop cultural parody shows, but Hell in a Handbag’s production of THE DIVINE SISTER rises above this description. In the grand camp tradition, playwright Charles Busch’s witty and raunchy send-up celebrates the peculiar fascination Hollywood held with nuns in the 1960s. And what better subjects could there be for female impersonation? Cloisters of chaste, devout, dramatic, beautiful characters ripe for fictional scandal. Busch’s script takes advantage of every nun cliche in the canon—visions from God, desperate campaigns to build a new school for the children (the children!) and of course, sexual liaisons between the sisters.

The sharp satire and low comedy (fart jokes, anyone?) clip speedily along with the help of the immensely talented cast. Agnes, the young postulant played with breathtaking comic precision by Charlotte Mae Ellison, burst into the first scene like Maria on the hillside. She bubbles over with youthful innocence, love of God and the occasional stigmata. All this, much to the dismay of the Mother Superior and Sister Acacious, played by Artistic Director David Cerda and company member Ed Jones, who are desperately trying to raise the funds to build a new school for the children. They petition the wealthy Mrs. Levinson, played by Chad, whose turn as the tight-fisted and atheistic Mrs. Levinson is happily reminiscent of Nathan Lane’s Albert in The Birdcage. The actor’s subsequent appearance as Timmy, a young boy at the school working through a confusing desire for friendship with his buff schoolmates is equally delightful.

After the Mother Superior’s failed solicitation, Levi Holloway appears as Mrs. Levinson’s young house guest, the fast-talking reporter, Jeremy. Holloway brings some Cary Grant realness as the leading man—if Cary Grant slammed a handful of uppers before trying to reunite with his long lost love who became a nun. Indeed, he (and the rest of the supporting cast) nimbly handle Busch’s machine gun dialogue, expertly playing up the surface melodrama of the golden age films of Hollywood. The plot thickens when Sister Walburga (Maria Stephens), visiting from Germany, is up to some suspicious behavior in the catacombs of the church. While Stephens’ stretch of a German accent gets some laughs, she reaches peak hysterical weirdness as Mrs. Macduffie, the church’s ancient cleaning woman who reveals to the Mother Superior certain facts from her history. Will these unearthed truths lead to a series of dramatic, shocking and emotional revelations? Obviously. Busch’s characters race toward the frenzied climactic ending which is, of course, a musical number.

While this sister could have used a lot more of that lustful nun’s storyline (and more singing!), I have to say Hell in a Handbag has put together a hell of a fun show. Walking into Ebenezer Lutheran Church (who should get a Jeff nomination for good sportsmanship) felt like the communal experience theater should be. So bring a friend–or three!–grab a beer–in a church!–and enjoy director Shade Murray’s mastery of camp in The Divine Sister.

About author

Smyra Yawn

Since 2011 Smyra Yawn has worked as a stage manager, production manager, business manager and teacher in Chicago. She enjoys also coffee and gardening.