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St. Louis by Richard Green

The Divine Sister
HotCity Theatre

Also see Bob's review of The Foreigner


Lavonne Byers and John Flack
Nothing says "the holidays" more than dark secrets coming vividly to life. Or Byzantine riddles that add a dash of mystery to the hum-drum rituals of the winter solstice—before we finally find a way to all just get along, going into the New Year. Right?

Now, in the local premiere of Charles Busch's The Divine Sister, we get all that, plus some great, hyper-idealized nuns—along with a few who could scare the hell out of a Marine sergeant, too.

John Flack is the unquestioned star of the show, as the Mother Supreme—riding on, like the Singing Nun, on a vintage red bike and beaming wistfully over all God's creatures, in their fortune and folly. Mr. Flack has paid a lot of dues in recent years, in dozens of ensemble roles, and as a terrific song-and-dance man, and here he finally, wisely cashes in all his good karma for this one outrageous Christmas romp. And God's blessed us, everyone!

Marty Stanberry began his meticulous directorial process with a fabulous cast—Lavonne Byers is a mysterious visiting sister from Berlin who also probes the convent's catacombs with Chopper Leifheit as a mysterious, Dan Brown-style monk. Half the performers are double-cast, so he also appears as the Mother Supreme's old crush, provoking some hilarious His Girl Friday-style fast-talking in a flashback with Mr. Flack. Susie Wall goes back and forth (she must be from Krypton, the way she changes costumes so fast) between her two roles as a wealthy benefactor and an adorable urchin at the St. Veronica's grade school in Pittsburgh. And all their wacky pacing, smoothly managed by director Stanberry, keeps the comedy bubbly and blithe.

Mr. Flack inherits the role from playwright/performer Busch, whose glamor in gowns is by now well-established, but Mr. Flack adds a more insane visual element by not having that naturally glamorous aspect, though he still takes the gold medal for bringing this ever-upbeat penguin to the stage with one part Julie Andrews and one part Peter Cook. It seems like a long time coming, but he finally gets the role he deserves.

Kirsten Wylder is a great second banana to Mr. Flack, as Sister Acacius, the wrestling coach and confidant to the Mother Supreme. Like everyone else on stage, though, she has a terrible secret, or two or three—it's easy to lose count, amidst all the drama of sudden, dizzying confession, and deep introspection, that occurs whenever Mr. Busch's characters fall into abstraction over their own uniquely troubled pasts, which happens with alarming and hilarious frequency.

And Alyssa Ward gets the prize for the wildest contrast in characters, from act one to act two, though she's still playing the visionary Sister Agnes all the way through. Like Ms. Byers and Ms. Wall, she has that insane intelligence at her beck and call that somehow informs her simplest moments on stage with an almost subversive madness. Mr. Flack has it too but, like any lead role, he just has to make sure every ruffle and flourish of his characterization is perfectly in place, like a holiday centerpiece—which, most happily, it is.

Through December 15, 2012, at the Kranzberg Arts Center (between Saint Louis University and the Fox Theatre, 501 Grand Blvd., about a mile north of I-64 (in the old Woolworth Building). For more information visit them online at www.hotcitytheatre.org or call (314) 289-4063.

Cast
Mother Supreme: John Flack*
Sister Agnes: Alyssa Ward
Sister Acacius: Kirsten Wylder
Sister Walburga/Mrs. MacDuffie: Lavonne Byers
Mrs. Levinson/Timmy: Susie Wall*
Jeremy/Brother Venerius: Chopper Leifheit*

Production Staff
Director: Marty Stanberry
Scenic Designer: James Holborow
Lighting Designer: Maureen Berry
Costume Designer: Jane Sullivan
Properties Master: Meg Brinkley
Sound Designer: Patrick Burks
Stage Manager: Kate Koch*
Assistant Stage Manager: Tricia Duffin
Technical Director: Doug Schroeder
Scenic Artist: Anna Grimm
Master Electrician: Josie Zeugin
Running Crew: Emma Bruntragner
Sound Board Operator: Samantha Wellman

* Denotes Member, Actors Equity Association, the union of professional actors and stage managers


Photo: Todd Studios


-- Richard T. Green

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