Friday, November 28, 2003

Revelry after the feast: Nuncrackers full of holiday cheer

Published in the Portland Phoenix

When the big meal’s over, and some relatives have even broken into the leftovers, in sets Thanksgiving’s lethargy. After a few hours of snoozing and reclining, usually someone will pipe up, "We need to go for a walk." But why fight the urge to kick back before the holiday madness really begins?

Get out of the house, relax, and get a big belly laugh from Nuncrackers, the Nunsense Christmas musical, now on at the Lyric Music Theater, "just off Broadway" in South Portland.

You don’t need a Catholic upbringing to get a laugh out of these nutty nuns, putting on a Christmas special for the local public-access cable channel from the basement of Mt. St. Helen’s church, Hoboken. (If you went to Catholic school, though, you’ll recognize the Reverend Mother’s training clicker, now used more widely to train dogs in obedience classes, and a few other gems.)

The studio — which doubles as a nuclear fallout shelter (where else would you rather be during the Apocalypse than in a church basement with cheery nuns?) — was paid for when one of these worldly nuns, Sister Mary Paul (Elisha Walls) won the Publisher’s Clearinghouse sweepstakes.

These and other tidbits tear away some of the burqa-like fabric that literally hides these women of the cloth from the world, showing us the reality of life behind the veil: While restricted and carefully supervised, there’s a lot of freedom to be had.

At least so says Sister Robert Anne, a hilariously troublesome nun wonderfully played by Melissa Bornmann. She plays tricks on poor Sister Mary Paul, leading to big laughs and some great variations on traditional Christmas carols. There’s even a sing-along to get you really in the mood and quite convinced that Thanksgiving is a blip on the holiday radar screen.

The nuns aren’t the only folks on stage. Several of the students at Mt. St. Helen’s school also appear, and are wonderful performers with amazing costumes. They gamely follow the lead of the nuns, and have a blast.

Susan Nappi’s choreography is wonderful — have you ever seen nuns do a Rockettes-style kickline? She maintains an air of comedy throughout, and manages to design a chase of the dueling Sugar Plum Fairies that shows off the dance skills of Patricia H. Davis (as the Reverend Mother) and mocks the lack of same by Joshua Chard (as Father Virgil Manly Trott).

Though Chard himself appears at times to be trying overly hard in this not-at-all-serious play, he carried off a fruitcake-making lesson very well, adding just enough rum to his throat and choosing excellent plastic fruits as ingredients — because "no one will ever know the difference."

But more than just a set of silly anecdotes, this is a musical. The band and performers span a wide range of churchly song styles, from holiday carols to a rousing gospel number sung entirely by white folks. (It’s nearly enough to take your mind off the cranberry sauce you left on the counter.)

There are also a couple of nunly variations on modern songs, including a convent-recruiting song adapted from a number usually performed by the Village People, and a look at what pious, fun-loving nuns really want for Christmas. (Hint: They can’t have it.)

The show gets at the humanity of nuns, and perhaps even pleases real nuns with its humor and candor about life in the convent.

They spread a little holiday cheer with Secret Santa gifts to the audience, including a very handy set of stick-on 10 Commandments. They’re most useful because, Sister Mary Paul points out, "you can peel off the ones you don’t like."

Even puppets get into the act: Sister Mary Annette, a Muppet lookalike, has the secret to why people who decorate Christmas trees put an angel on top. Together with a pair of reindeer sock puppets, she sings out what really happens at the North Pole each year as Christmas approaches.

Yet, at the end of it all, these nuns — for all their wishes of worldliness — know how to do the right thing. They don’t fall prey to their own threats to the children — "be good or Santa won’t come" — but instead do feel the love that should pervade the season, and the sense of gratefulness and compassion Christmas should be about.

Just the thing to remind you it’s time for a snack. Isn’t there some turkey in the fridge?

Written by Dan Googin. Directed by Charles Grindle. With Patricia H. Davis, Melissa Bornmann, Elisha Walls, and Leslie Chadbourne. At Lyric Music Theater, in South Portland, through Dec. 7. Call (207) 799-1421.