The loopy nonsense of ‘Nunsense’
Durango Lively Arts launches another musical comedy

The cast of Nunsense, from left to right, Erika Beardsley, Elizabeth Crawford, Sevena Schnarch, Lisa Zwisler and Mandy Irons shake a leg above Nicholaus Sandner, their director, at the Durango Art Center on Monday/Photo by David Halterman

by Judith Reynolds

Reverend Mother runs a tight ship. When faced with a problem, the Irish in her rises to a fine brogue. She’s all action. In contrast, Sister Hubert, second in command at the Little Sisters of Hoboken Convent, yearns to take charge. Like every good vice president, she knows when to push, when to shove, and when to shut up.

In Dan Goggin’s “Nunsense,” the tension at the top is only one of the pleasures of this zany musical comedy. And you don’t have to be Catholic to get it. “Nunsense” is one of those spoofs where just about everything we Americans hold dear comes in for a jab: religion, rank, status, one-upsmanship, and the illusion we can solve any problem.

Staged by the Durango Lively Arts Co., “Nunsense” opens Thurs., March 1, and runs weekends through March 10. Goggin wrote the book, music and lyrics in whirlwind 20 years ago. In 1986, the work won four Outer Circle Critics Awards, including Best Off-Broadway Musical in New York. Since then, touring productions have crossed the country. It’s been popping up on community theater stages, and there even has been an all-male drag rendition. At last “Nunsense” will arrive in Durango.

Hot on the webbed feet of another musical, “A Year with Frog and Toad” at the Durango Arts Center, “Nunsense” offers this community another chance to see how lively home-grown entertainment can be.

In the opening scene of “Nunsense,” Director Nicholaus Sandner explained, the Sisters are putting on a variety show to raise money. However, they have to use a set their eighth-graders built for a production of “Grease,” complete with soda fountain, bed and a “Grease” logo. Ironically enough, Durango High School also had a set for its production of “Grease” last fall. However, Sandner said he looked into the possibility of borrowing the DHS set, but it was too elaborate for his needs. “We ended up simplifying things for our purposes – no hotrod, for example,” he said. “But we’ve added a church pew and a stained-glass window.”

At the beginning of “Nunsense,” Rev. Mother (Mandy Irons) clarifies the confusion of a benefit production on a borrowed stage. The show-within-a-show takes place and has the feel of a production on the brink of chaos. That’s partly where the comedy comes in.

“The show itself has an improvisational nature,” Sandner said. “The nuns are supposed to be putting on a variety show, and it’s been pulled together in a week. During the show, a number of things happen: a health inspector arrives, Rev. Mother gets high, that kind of thing.”

During auditions, Sandner said he used a lot of improv techniques: “I wanted to see how well actors could maintain character. For example, I asked the actors to improvise teaching a religion class to unruly seventh-graders.”

Those who passed muster, five local actor/singers will appear in the DLAC production: Irons as Sr. Mary Regina, Mother Superior; Lisa Zwisler is Sr. Hubert; Erika Beardsley will play Sr. Robert Anne; and Serena Schnarch will be Sr. Mary Leo. The well-known area soprano Elizabeth Crawford has the plum role of Sr. Amnesia. Her rendition of “So You Want to Be a Nun,” complete with an alter-ego puppet, may stop the show.

In early February, Sandner said cast members practiced their improv techniques on unsuspecting Snowdown revelers: “The cast, all in full costume, interacted with people on the street. Many thought they were real nuns, until they heard some of the crazy questions.”

Credit costumer Gail Beach for the formal, full-black habits. Wade Stallings and his crew put together the set. Choreographer Lani Dill has put some snap into the Sisters’ mishaps. And C. Scott Hagler, musical director at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, will accompany. Hagler’s a busy guy. Last Saturday he wrapped up “Frog.” With the piano bench still warm, he’ll be at the keyboard for opening night of “Nunsense” on March 1. •




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