Mark Hagen does camp so seemingly effortlessly, you’d think he’d been born in mascara and fake eyelashes. Hagen, also known (in certain parts of town, at least) as “Dear Ruthie” is the best thing about Off The Wall Theater’s current production of Charles Busch’s 2010 comedy Divine Sister. As the beleaguered Mother Superior of a very strange convent school in Pittsburgh, Hagen captures every nuance of Busch’s drag-inspired sensibility; both over-the-top and warmly human, sympathetic even when boring holes in the audience with doctrinally-unforgiving eyes. “The world is changing,” she says wistfully, then direly: “and we must do everything in our power to stop it.”
The play is as absurd and risque as might be expected from the author of Vampire Lesbians of Sodom. The plot, involving long-lost children, mystical apparitions, repressed lesbian lust, and a Da Vinci Code-esque secret cult of the divine sister of Jesus Christ, broadly parodies numerous Hollywood classic and contemporary Broadway takes on nuns, from Rosalind Russel in The Trouble with Angels to Agnes of God and Doubt. This farrago requires the performers to shift tone on a button, careening madly from high melodrama to gutter comedy. Now, camp has at least four layers: the obvious superficial gag (literally, in one memorable instance), the pop-culture in-joking, the gay outsider hyper-awareness, manifested as diva irony, and the emotional quality we could call “the unspeakable sublime,” where the horrible and the hilarious converge in some perverse alchemy. Alas, apart from Hagen, the cast of Divine Sister seldom scrapes past the first layer, dissipating most of the the queenly shenanigans into mere silliness. As someone famously said, “dying is easy, comedy is hard.” Humor springs from recognizable, if overblown, human reactions; silly walks and voices alone do not good comedy make.
Director Jeremy Welter keeps the pace appropriately lightning-swift, and the energy farcically high. He also presents a creditably—forgive the expression—“straight man” to Hagen’s antics; one screaming match between them in particular achieves the heights of hilarity that the entire play should have. Jocelyn Ridgely, as a fanatical German nun, shows a diabolical sparkle that lets us in on the joke, and Heather Reynolds has her moments when her wrestling-coach sister gets her game face on. The audience rewarded the players’ fearlessness with whoops and cheers at the final bow, but still—comedy, especially camp, is a delicate orchid: it withers without precise, careful attention.
by Charles Busch
directed by Jeremy Welter
October 31, Nov 1, & 2, 7:30 and Nov 3, 4:30 p.m.
Off The Wall Theatre
127 East Wells Street
box office 414-484-8874.