by Michael Bowen

Let's start with a sample joke, a taste of the nonsensical fun that is Nunsense. One of the Little Sisters of Hoboken, Sr. Mary Amnesia, is telling us about her daily routine at the convent. She always knows when it's time for prayer, because "we have this clock with the 12 Apostles, and when the big hand is on the John... and the little hand is on the Peter... "

Sure, it's juvenile, especially on the page. But by mixing sacred and mundane, saints and wall clocks, the joke has just enough irreverence to be amusing. Besides, inside a packed theater, when 300-some other people burst out in laughter over a junior high gag that's not only a bit risque but delivered by a Catholic nun -- well, it's no time to be sanctimonious.

Sin, Death, God -- Nunsense generates a lot of its humor by poking fun at our insecurities about Heavy Matters. We're all a bit nervous about these topics, anyway, so it doesn't take much to make an audience giggle.

Even non-Catholics, though, have heard about how mean those Catholic-school nuns can be. Sister Mary Hubert (Kathy Doyle-Lipe) comes out at the top of the second act and spots a woman chewing gum, then commands her to spit it out. Guffaws -- and yes, even chortles -- could be heard all around. We were being put back in the place of the much-cowed elementary school kid once again, whether we attended one of those schools named after a saint or not.

But the opportunity to be a little naughty, with no harm done, doesn't fully explain why audiences flock to this particular convent full o' comedy. The chief attraction of the Civic's current show (through March 8) is that we get to spend two hours in the company of five talented women. With Troy Nickerson directing and choreographing, they can spoof the higher powers much better than we could do ourselves.

It's the small touches that make this comedy go. The three onstage musicians dressed as priests. A great visual gag when Reverend Mother (Jean Hardie) is presented with flowers. A fine imitation of a message machine on fast forward by Sr. Mary Amnesia (Patricia Brady). Hardie, in her black habit and white wimple, face-down and beyond being merely tipsy, suddenly arching her back and yelling, "Free Willy!" The way Doyle-Lipe, all 4 feet, 10 inches of her, disappears during a chorus line behind the other sisters' elbows. Sister Mary Leo (Sara Hinnenkamp), dazzled by visions of personal glory as a ballerina, dancing beautifully en pointe, then crumpling when scolded by Reverend Mother. The sexual doubles entendres as the sisters explain some of the recipes in the cookbook they've just created as a fundraiser. Two members of the cast can even do the splits, impressively -- and not the two you'd expect.

While Dan Goggin (who did book, music and lyrics) has provided the one-liners and the silly situations, none of Nunsense would be nonsensical and fun unless the quintet of actresses could pull off the script's singin', dancin', jokin' demands.

For there's plenty of talent in this quintet: It's the best local theater ensemble of the year. Hinnenkamp plays the convent's novice, more caught up in fantasies about ballet than about serving the Lord. (The vow of humility might be asking a bit much.) Abbey Crawford-Heim plays Sister Robert Anne as one tough broad, a real juvenile delinquent from Brooklyn's back alleys. Brady, called upon as the amnesiac to play the doofus, has perfected the self-satisfied smile of the truly stupid person who has just completed a task proudly and gotten it completely wrong. Doyle-Lipe shows off her abilities in physical comedy, tap dance and all manner of schtick.

And then there's Hardie. There's a reason that she has been in eight productions of the various Nunsense shows (there are three sequels to this, the original version). Her Sister Mary Regina can dance showgirl-style, and she can do the bump-and-grind. She can hector an entire audience, putting into us the fear of a God who's in a particularly nasty mood today -- and then she can turn around and fall right off the front of the stage.

Three reasons to see this show: Sister Mary Regina dances (a bit too energetically). Sister Mary Regina sniffs something that she shouldn't. Sister Mary Regina presents recipes from the convent's cookbook.

There's a convent in Hoboken that you ought to visit. Get thee to a nunnery.

Publication date: 02/20/03

American Original: The Life and Work of John James Audubon @ Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

Tuesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Continues through Sept. 19
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About The Author

Michael Bowen

Michael Bowen is a former senior writer for The Inlander and a respected local theater critic. He also covers literature, jazz and classical music, and art, among other things.