In Saints and Sisters: Nuns with Guns in Old New Orleans, assassins-in-training don habits to go undercover. They also drink beer and talk about sex. As one of the nuns likes to say, they will "pray on it later."
Writer Ren French, creator of The Clifton Monroe Chronicles, packs a busy plot into the two "episode" show structured as an old-time radio production, presented recently at NOCCA by Second Star Performance Collective. In episode one, "Welcome to the Rookery," outlaw Jesse James' granddaughters Jessica (Angela Jo) and Jasmine (Cammie West) are recruited by the scheming Mother Superior (Kerry Cahill). The sisters follow her to the Ursuline Convent, where they meet a horny priest (Matt Standley) and eventually find out Mother Superior is not the rosary-clutching type.
The live radio show format calls on six actors to perform 22 characters. At the side of the stage, props are used for sound effects, such as balloons popped for gunshots. The performers, especially Cahill and Jake Bartush, who plays many outlandish minor characters, are all very talented. They embody these personas, and it's fun to watch their back-and-forth character transitions.
The radio format provides good energy, but at times the structure is distracting. The actors were interesting to watch and it was sometimes hard not to focus on their mannerisms and visual interactions, but that took away from the effect of a radio show. Also distracting was the quantity of sex jokes. It's fun to make bawdy jokes, and the gimmick of lusty nuns is funny. But while these jokes, and there are many, initially got big laughs, they eventually became stale and dragged down the narrative. Less would be more.
There are breaks in the story, in which the cast perform commercials for products such as hair relaxer. Here, too, the actors shined, particularly Standley, who enlivened hilarious characters including a jingle-singing cigarette salesman and a biscuit-making woman. Commercials made the drama feel like a radio show and gave the audience a break from the busy plot. It's not clear if the sisters are being double-crossed, and we learn odd details about Jessica's son, whom we assumed was dead. The show hit its sweet spot when the action centered on this act's more emotionally grounded material. Transitions in the second episode, "Bad Habits Die Hard...er," moved smoother when information came faster.
Creating a show with this much energy takes a lot of hard work. By the end of Saints and Sisters, I was invested in the characters' narratives. Like any good radio show, though, we're left on a cliffhanger, anxiously awaiting the next planned installment. These nuns and their gun-toting counterparts seem to have a lot more fight left in them.