- Varla Jean Merman plays Mother Superior in The Divine Sister.
Sometimes nuns get a bum rap. The stereotype of the mean nun, dogmatically strict and armed with a ruler, has long been an entertaining character. But in The Divine Sister, Varla Jean Merman (aka Jeffery Roberson), Ricky Graham and Theatre 13 are giving up that image for Lent.
"There are some strange things going on in this convent," Roberson says. "It can be risque, but it has a sweet story."
It may be sweet, but it's not the Catholic church's vision of nuns. In Theatre 13's production, almost all of the nuns are played by men. In the 2010 debut of Divine Sister in New York, the only drag performance was by playwright Charles Busch in the lead role as Mother Superior. That drew some fortuitous negative publicity.
"A photo of him dressed as a nun ran in the paper," Roberson says. "Someone at the archdiocese condemned it. And it sold out."
A drag-heavy production in New Orleans is probably less of a shock to local audiences, especially for fans of Varla and Graham's many collaborations, but Divine Sister isn't a satire of the church or parody of nuns.
"It's actually inspirational," says Theatre 13's Gary Rucker, who stars in the production.
Busch is known for outrageous satires like Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, Psycho Beach Party and The Tale of the Allergist's Wife. Local audiences may recall Running With Scissors' production of his Mommie Dearest parody Die, Mommie, Die!. But this work takes up a particular era's film stereotypes of nuns: the kooky and dedicated nuns of films like The Sound of Music or The Bells of St. Mary's.
"Every great nun movie, every great scene is part of this medley of nun movies," Roberson says. "But you don't have to know them to get it."
"It's Hollywood Catholicism," says director Ricky Graham, a frequent Merman collaborator. "The nun herself is saintly, not just a worker in the church. Most of the nuns in this play are kooky. They're refracted through Hollywood."
Some of those films include the drama The Song of Bernadette (1943), the comedy The Trouble with Angels (1966) and The Singing Nun (1966), a biographical work about an actual singing nun, played by Debbie Reynolds. There also are nods to the drama Agnes of God, a play made into a film starring Jane Fonda in 1985. (Roberson has starred as Agnes in a production of the play.)
Graham explains some of the humor as seeing Rosalind Russell's Mother Superior in The Trouble with Angels as being more like the eccentric Mame Dennis she played in Auntie Mame.
"This goes back to how (nuns) were portrayed after JFK became president," Roberson says. "There was this fascination with Catholicism."
There are many nun films to draw on and Busch is known for channeling film treatments in his plays. And Divine Sister isn't Nunsense, Roberson says. Its complicated plot involves women who all had interesting lives before they entered the convent, and those secrets slowly spill out. Some of the religious concerns extend to other denominations.
"When you're a nun, it's a full-time job. You give up everything to serve God," Roberson says. "But everyone has a secret, and you see why everyone has come to the church."
Roberson saw the original production in New York and was interested in doing the play. He has worked with Busch in a couple of productions. In The Miracle Worker, he played Helen Keller to Busch's Anne Sullivan.
Roberson starred in The Divine Sister in a recent run in Boston, which he says focused more on the dramatic side, and he was the only character in drag. The New Orleans production is a comedy. It was originally scheduled to run in the City Series at Southern Rep, but when that theater lost its lease at the Shops at Canal Place, the production was moved to the Mid-City Theatre. The dates were not changed and it was always meant to run following Fat Tuesday.
"I can't go crazy for Carnival," Roberson says. "We have a show opening two days later."
The producers also thought the play seemed like a good way to ease into Lent.
"It fits the mood of Carnival," Rucker says. "We wish this could count as church. There's a lot of revelry in it."
But it's not over the top.
"You can still give something up for Lent and come see this," Graham says.