The Divine Sister features some of Denver's most talented actors, reliable creators of deep and memorable characters in artistically ambitious venues — and all of them having the time of their lives here, hamming, capering and slamming home the cheesiest jokes imaginable. The insanely over-the-top script by Charles Busch is a tribute to nun and convent movies — everything from Agnes of God to Doubt, with a dash of The Da Vinci Code thrown in for good measure — and the cast is kept, if not in check, then at least in a consistent comic universe by Nick Sugar's tight direction.
The plot concerns a Mother Superior trying to keep her convent financially afloat while also dealing with Agnes, a hysterically religious young postulant (or perhaps a dishonest fame seeker — who knows?) who pronounces herself the immaculate conception; Sister Acacius, the perpetually horny sports coach; a filmmaker called Jeremy who wants to record Agnes's various healings and ecstasies; and Sister Walburga, a mysterious nun from Germany, who periodically creeps outside the convent walls for secret meetings with a strangely farcical monk. Mother Superior approaches Mrs. Levinson, a rich Jewish widow who happens to be an atheist, in search of a donation and, in the course of her unsuccessful solicitation, which includes references to gefilte fish, the shtetl and — an interpolation by Sister Acacius — how Mrs. Levinson must enjoy a good Kosher pickle now and then (or a Kosher Weiner, I'm thinking), begins a chain of discoveries about her own life.
Playwright Busch is known for his affectionate mockery of Hollywood genres, and I think I'd have enjoyed The Divine Sister even more if I'd caught all the references. But even those of us not obsessed with movies can't fail to get the general gist, and though I have no firsthand knowledge of The Da Vinci Code, I do know enough about Opus Dei to snicker at all the hints of murder, spying and shadowy international goings-on in the subplot. And who doesn't remember those plucky red-haired gal reporters who graced old detective movies? The dialogue is full of spot-on gags: Agnes sees a saint's face in a pair of urine-stained BVDs; Mother Superior is writing a book called The Middle Ages: So Bad?; and there's talk of a little-known Catholic sect based on the doctrine of Jesus's neglected sister, the Divine Joyce, with echoes here of Virginia Woolf's essay on Shakespeare's hypothetical sister. (And I also couldn't help remembering the wonderfully silly order of the leaping nuns in Bedazzled — the first version with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore.) What else? Missing babies, ghastly childhoods, an Irish washerwoman privy to deep secrets, a dominatrix who's brought down by a hitherto timid gay boy (who doesn't know he's gay) and a trio of sadistic triplets. Well, the triplets aren't that bad; they were "cleared of all suspicion of water torture," according to Mother Superior.
What I like about Christopher Whyde's performance as Mother Superior — and also about the way the role is written — is that there's a certain level of homage in all the absurdity. The character is more than mannerism and cartoon, and her benign smile is really sometimes quite sweet and reassuring — though there are darker and more repressive currents behind it. Trina Magness has a ball with Mrs. Levinson, delivering the brilliantly hilarious monologue about having renounced religion during a visit to Crete after seeing a group of cuttlefish destroy a terrified octopus, and then a dolphin devouring the cuttlefish with magnificent passion. She's just as good later, as girly little Timothy seeking advice and comfort from Mother Superior. Rhonda Brown's Walburga is a powerful menacing presence, pure Cruella de Vil, and McPherson Horle's grimacing as she attempts to suppress her overwhelming sexual urges is a hoot. Josh Hartwell's Jeremy is affable and apparently sane, a nice counterpoint to the general madness — at least until he gives a disquisition on his own penis as long as the imaginary organ itself. The enticingly vital Laura Jo Trexler plays Agnes quite sincerely — well, most of the time — and you're sort of happy when she regains her faith at the end. Everyone works together well as an ensemble, which is good, because a show like this really needs a clean presentation. Each line of dialogue gets its due, each gag is skillfully timed and encapsulated. Add the ridiculous costumes of Kevin Copenhaver (Sister Walburga's mighty headdress is a highlight, but there's strong competition from Mrs. Levinson's ghastly pantsuit), and the funky, cozy, edge-of-nasty charm of the Avenue Theater, and you've got yourself a party.