There’s just something about nuns. Maybe it’s the habits. Or the wimples. Maybe we as a culture have collectively seen The Sound of Music a few too many times. Whatever it is, the convent-dwelling sisters are a source of endless fascination, and often of humour as well. Now the phenomenon of comedy nuns has tickled the fancy of TotoToo. Ottawa’s gay and lesbian community theatre will end its 2013/14 season with a production of Nunsense A-Men! — the 1985 musical by playwright Dan Goggin — with a bit of a twist: in this version, all the sisters are played by men.
The story begins when Sister Julia, Child of God, who serves as cook for the Little Sisters of Hoboken convent, accidentally kills two-thirds of her fellow sisters with a batch of tainted vichyssoise. What follows is a series of madcap antics as five of the surviving nuns — Mother Superior Mary Regina, Sister Mary Hubert, Sister Robert Anne, Sister Mary Leo and Sister Mary Amnesia (so-called thanks to the crucifix that fell on her head and erased her memory) — try to raise the funds to bury their fallen comrades. They try various schemes, including a greeting-card company, ultimately staging a variety show to scrape together the money for the last four burials.
“It just adds another comedy factor in Nunsense to have guys playing the nuns,” says director Michael Gareau, who has worked extensively in musical theatre in Ottawa, including with Orpheus Theatre. “Those of us, including myself, who went to school being taught by nuns in Catholic schools . . . there were nuns who were pretty masculine . . . you didn’t have to be pretty to be a nun.” But he’s quick to point out that Nunsense isn’t a drag show. While men play the roles, they are played straight, as it were. “They’re just guys portraying truly from their hearts what they believe these nuns would be like,” he says.
While the production, especially as played by a cast of mostly gay men, pokes a lot of fun at the tropes and tenets of Catholicism, it also treats the faith with a certain amount of reverence. “There are times when it’s very, very serious,” Gareau says. “Those who do have a strong faith will even be close to tears, if not in tears, but most of the time they’ll be saying, ‘Oh my god, this is funny’ . . . The juxtaposition of putting these nuns in silly situations is what adds the comedy value.”
Raised Catholic himself, Gareau says he tried to infuse the show’s humour with a certain fondness — not so much skewering the church as gently lampooning it. “It’s beautifully written,” he says of the show. “[Goggin] really took a lot of care in the dialogue and in creating the characters of these nuns.” Gareau has also tried to add a few modern touches to the show, including current pop-culture references and more local humour for an Ottawa audience.
With a two-hour running time, including intermission, Gareau says the show is incredibly fast-paced. There’s even some audience participation in the form of a quiz led by Sister Mary Amnesia — though woe betide those who didn’t attend Catholic school and learn the proper etiquette for addressing the class.
Gareau says he’s fortunate to work with such a strong cast. “They’re really gelling; they get along really well together, and it’s really, really high-energy.”
Nunsense A-Men! promises to be a strong end to the TotoToo season — hopefully without any Catholic guilt.