'Nunsense' hilarity continues with 'Second Coming' at Toby's Dinner Theatre Audience often is included

August 27, 1993|By Rona Hirsch | Rona Hirsch,Contributing Writer

It takes more than faith to pull off a comedy about nuns who can-can, crack one-liners and reprimand audience members for chewing gum.

So, the cast and crew of "Nunsense II -- The Second Coming" rely on clever staging and their own backgrounds to present the frenetically paced, show-within-a-show -- within the confines of a theater-in-the-round.

The play, running through Oct. 3 at Toby's Dinner Theatre in Columbia, is the sequel to "Nunsense," a similarly paced production. Both were written by Dan Goggin.

For ye of little background, "Nunsense II" picks up where "Nunsense," leaves off:

The Order of Mount St. Helens was able to raise money from its variety show fund-raiser and finally bury four fellow sisters who were kept on ice in the church freezer. (The poor souls died of food poisoning from a bad batch of soup prepared by Sister Julia, Child of God.)

Out of gratitude, the five star-struck sisters perform a second variety show until the Franciscan order down the road and an unscrupulous food inspector threaten to break up the act and lay claim to prize money won by one of the nuns.

But don't get too comfortable as you sit back to enjoy the show. You might be asked to tell a joke, sing along to the tune of an old Irish drinking song or dance across the floor on your way to the restroom.

"It's a very busy show, very challenging," said director Terri Mazzarella, who went on to list several of the production's obstacles.

"Being in the round complicates it," said the 34-year-old Virginia native who is appearing as the mother superior in the off-Broadway production of "Nunsense" in New York.

"To carry it, the performers have to keep moving so that everyone gets to see. The costumes are also challenging -- no arms, legs, no head movement. It's difficult to place [the actresses] and keep continuity going without being monotonous. soon as you have two or three of those robes, you have a wall of black."

But choreographer Terrence Sweeney of Columbia decided to put in several dance formations as a way to break up the black, allow the audience to see and add to the fun.

"We wanted to give the audience something extra," he said. "Because of 'Nunsense,' the audience was accepting of almost everything we do. We decided to take the premise that a nun in a habit singing and dancing is funny and give the audience as much as they can get out of it."

For example, the 38-year-old choreographer turned the opening song, a prayer, into a Busby Berkley dance number complete with a circular motion, ripple-arm movement.

He and Ms. Mazzarella took care that the cast perform in character.

"Nuns wouldn't perform a precision dance perfectly," he said. "But the actresses got quite good -- too good -- and we said, 'Do it like nuns, do it like your character would do it.' So Sister Leo [who was a ballerina] would do it as a ballet and [the be

fuddled] Sister Amnesia would always be out of step."

They also choreographed dances from the perspective of nuns who might have watched old musicals and would use those dances in an amateur variety show.

But crew members were limited in how far they could go without breaching the level of propriety required of a nun.

"We always had to keep in mind what nuns would do and wouldn't do, even though we stretched the line," Mr. Sweeney said.

He, Ms. Mazzarella and two of the actresses -- Sherri Edelen and Jean Anne Kain -- fell back on their own Catholic school training to "incorporate what we remembered," he said.

"We couldn't have them do certain moves. We used fake legs in a chorus line, because we knew nuns aren't allowed to lift their habits above their shin."

That training also helped the cast and crew develop a realistic portrayal of the characters.

"I saw them after school because my mother was very involved in school," said Ms. Mazzarella, who attended 16 years of Catholic school. "We would see them as real people as they related to each other and other people."

Ms. Kain, who brings a soft, Irish accent to her Reverend Mother, agreed. "Some of the gestures I use, I got from the nuns I had in school," said the 58-year-old actress, who also is in charge of group sales at Toby's.

In addition to being multitalented, the cast members had to have personalities similar to their on-stage personas.

"They are five of the strongest actresses in the area. But they also have different strengths that are in character with the

characters," Ms. Mazzarella said.

"The characters in the script aren't as fleshed out. So what's interesting is what the actresses bring to the roles and how they flesh them out themselves."

The ensemble includes Ms. Kain as Sister Mary Regina; Channez McQuay as Sister Mary Hubert; Kimberly Hinds as Sister Robert Anne; Ms. Edelen as Sister Mary Amnesia; and Megan Lawrence as Sister Mary Leo -- all county residents.

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