They had me when they dressed Ron Megee as a nun. With such a potent comic actor in the penguin suit, the Unicorn Theatre's revival of Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You could screw up almost everything and still be worth your time. Fortunately, as directed by the indefatigable Jeff Church, it's a sour treat to savor in a world gone saccharine.
Shrouded in all that bride-of-God drapery, Megee has only voice, hands and a slice of face to work with. That face is enough. With his long nose, sinking eyes and swooping brows, his face is an expressive marvel suited to silent film or comic theater, an instrument tuned to express daft self-involvement. Those eyes might have done it all on their own — sparkling one moment, shadowed the next, revealing a nun's dead-certain mind and hidden lonely heart.
For the first half, Megee's Sister Mary Ignatius addresses the audience directly from the fifth-grade classroom that she commands, answering questions about the finer points of Catholic dogma circa 1982. (At one point, she explains who's going to hell and who isn't.) Patiently, rarely taking an easy swipe, playwright Christopher Durang builds a case against infallibility, dwelling on tough questions about purgatory, meat on Fridays and the fate of the soul. The jokes aren't cheap or easy. They cut and they might offend, but they rise naturally from the legalistic wrangling that doctrine demands of its adherents. The absurd stuff seems exaggerated only by a hair.
Admirably, Megee exaggerates just as little. Restrained by the habit, he speaks in something close to his regular voice, never playing up the drag. His Sister Mary is accustomed to being in control, which means that his occasional flourishes hit all the harder. I relished the pleasure he took in commanding young student Thomas (Dakota Hoar) and his annoyance when asked why an omnipotent God would allow evil in the world.
The plot kicks in when four of Sister Mary's former students drop by, perform their old Christmas pageant for some reason, and then take turns explaining things to her. Turns out, life is more complicated than what's allowed by the moral absolutes of her lessons. Rachel May Roberts, a skilled young actress who improves in every show, lays into Sister Mary with a powerful soliloquy on cancer, depression and other real-world nightmares. Corrie Van Ausdal has too little to do but does manage a magnificent eye-pop. Gary Campbell does his best work here as the back half of a pantomime camel during the Christmas pageant, but once out in the air, he's overwrought.
By the end, Sister Mary has taken turns certain to rattle anyone who has gone in expecting Nunsense. Director Church handles it with whip-smart timing, layering individual notes of shock and sadness and outrage into a complex chord.
With Sister Mary, Church has top-shelf material to work with. That isn't the case with Seussical, the Broadway flop that he and his compatriots at the Coterie Theatre resuscitated back in 2004. They cut the show to 70 minutes, sliced away the excess, and set its narrative heart beating again.
Still, for the first 10 minutes or so, Seussical has trouble finding its breath. The opening number, "Oh, the Thinks You Can Think" is a hokey Disney-style paean to the imagination, albeit one that's absurdly limited in its scope. The cast sings, Oh the thinks you can think/When you think about Seuss, as though thinking about Sneetches is a child's only route to fruitful imagining. With a fairly large cast thronging the stage and hitting the notes too hard, the opening is labored and cluttered, an earthbound evocation of Seuss' airy joy. Later, when Horton the Elephant sings a self-affirmation number, telling us he has wings or some damn thing, I despaired.
Eventually, this version scales back the Broadway in favor of the Seuss. Both Horton books are brought to life in lighter, catchy numbers (well played by musical director Molly Jessup's small ensemble), with a welcome focus on the tales themselves. Michael Dragen nails Horton's stubborn decency, and Jennifer Mays is a flighty pleasure as absentee mama bird Mayzie.
It's worth a ticket just for Lauretta Pope reprising her role as Gertrude McFuzz, the one-feathered bird. Gawky and hilarious, chirpy and affecting, she starts the show as the little bird nobody onstage notices. Her voice resolves into half-tamed growls and squawks, then goes all Valley of the Dolls over pills meant to improve her plumage.
Church's staging makes clear the complex business of a mock trial, a flying bathtub and microscopic Whos. And the Coterie's strong props and lighting (thanks to Gary Wichansky and Art Kent, respectively) inspire the imagination instead of pummeling it.
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