Review: “The Divine Sister” is amusingly silly

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From the June 5, 2014 edition

The Short North Stage’s production of Charles Busch’s “The Divine Sister” is a wildly campy and over-the-top affair best described as pure fun. The six-person cast takes the madcap tale of Mother Superior (Doug Joseph) and the shenanigans of her cohorts, and blasts it into the wacko-sphere.

“The Divine Sister” centers on Mother as she tackles follies at a Pittsburgh convent/parochial school, including the arrival of Sister Walburga (Cheryl McFarren) from Germany, the litany of crises for Sister Acacius (Meg Chamberlain) and the exaggeratedly devoted faith of postulant Agnes (Erin Mellon). Adding fuel to the fire is the arrival of Mother’s ex-lover Jeremy (Ralph Scott) while she attempts to secure a massive donation for a new school from Mrs. Livingston (Josie Merkle).

These are only base descriptions of the main characters because as the story unfolds they become crazily animated. While the characters become more unrealistic — as do their actions — the narrative becomes more grounded, if still operating at soap-opera ridiculousness.

The narrative becomes a guiding light because some performances go a little over-the-top. Chamberlin’s Acacius is the breakout supporting character who gets some of the funniest material and presents some of the biggest laughs, but occasionally the performance is a bit too much.

Other characters slip into outlandish territory as well; “The Divine Sister” is a play that dictates such. But the cast’s overall chemistry and Joseph’s stellar performance at the center make it work. Scott — especially in a flashback scene where Joseph is also incredible — Merkle and Mellon add subtlety to their roles that greatly strengthens the humor.

As a comedy, “The Divine Sister” offers plentiful, and occasionally guttural, laughs. There are a few jokes that are a bit predictable and don’t land as they should, and the pacing could be a little quicker.

But the whole experience is enjoyable. “The Divine Sister” runs this weekend and next, and those looking for well-acted, Python-esque silliness should surely see a performance.

Photo by Heather Wack