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Monday, June 10, 2013

The Actor’s (and Playwright’s) Dream

Tony Award Lookback Dept.: Being an offbeat, Off-Broadway kind of writer, Christopher Durang racked up Obie Awards for Sister Mary Ignatius, The Marriage of Bette and Boo, and Betty’s Summer Vacation. He was nominated for a Tony Award for A History of the American Film, and finally won one of those things last night for Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. Here’s one of my early encounters as critic of his work, followed by the advance I wrote before the review.


DID YOU KNOW that your stay in purgatory can last anywhere from 300 years to 700 billion years? So says Sister Mary Ignatius, who adds that such really isn’t a long time in terms of eternity.

Christopher Durang
In Christopher Durang’s one-act tribute to botched Catholicism, this formidable nun delivers a lecture on life and destiny with a bouquet of dogma and half-remembered scriptural quotes.

As performed last week by Carol King, she had a small audience at RPI shrieking with laughter. And checking for bolts of punitive lightning.

Durang discharges mighty artillery in this script, and the Rensselaer Theatre Company’s production treated the script as gospel, giving it to us in its entirety. When performed on a double bill, an extensive nativity pageant may be omitted – but who would want to miss out on the sight of the baby Jesus being dropped from a two-person camel?

Consistent with Durang’s work, this play fires off a terrific premise that bogs down by the finale. Sister Mary is confronted by a quartet of former pupils, each of whom has in some way failed to live up to the high Catholic standards, one of whom is bent on revenge.

As the vengeful Diane, Marilyn Semerad reveals layer after layer of nasty resentment, each time almost thwarted by Sister Mary’s insistent dogma. It’s a good characterization that would benefit from more focus on the Diane’s moral struggle, the still-surviving wish to please Sister and the humanism her adult enlightenment forces her to confront.

Lisa Hailes, Robert Stevens and Daniel Curry completed the foursome, each with a nicely-realized characteristic that translates, in Sister Mary’s world, into rugged sin.

The Actor’s Nightmare, which opened the program, is the anxiety dream shared by all who have ever acted. Sadly, the script comes with a weakness: Durang undermines the nightmare experience of coming to a play unprepared by lampooning the plays themselves (by Coward, Shakespeare, Beckett) as well as the experience of messing up.

Michael Mayernik was George, the victim, who finds himself suddenly in Private Lives. Hailes and Semerad returned as two flamboyant actresses, with a stand-out job by William Coulter as Henry Irving.

The small theater in the RPI Chapel and Cultural center has all the charm of a gym, but effective in the context of these abstract plays.

The Actor’s Nightmare
Sister Mary Ignatius Explains it All for You

Directed by F. Paul Dellio
RPI Chapel & Cultural Center, March 19, 1987

Metroland Magazine, 26 March 1987


As Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All to You, we’re confronted with the dogmatic, benevolent nun that was the scourge of the parochial schoolkid. A few of those kids are back to confront her.

In The Actor’s Nightmare, the title character meets Ellen Terry and Sarah Siddons, two turn-of-the-century stars.

Playwright Christopher Durang doesn’t come up with your common female characters, so director Paul Dellio needed to recruit some uncommon actresses to play them.

“I was looking for diversity,” he says, “and I found it. That’s because the plays give them the opportunity to really look into themselves and to project a variety of persons.”

Lisa Hailes is Dame Ellen Terry and several others in Nightmare. In Sister Mary, she plays Philomena Rostovich. How does she develop these characters?

“In rehearsals you start out with very broad caricatures, then you try to fine tune them and bring them back. And it’s focus.”

Hailes started acting in high school, “and I’ve done community theater and dinner theater – a lot of different types of plays. I’ve had a play produced, and I’d like to pursue writing for theater. I’ve worked backstage, done costumes . . . ”

She finds a depth to Durang’s women that audiences respond to. “They aren’t two-dimensional. They’re complicated representations of real people. Nobody expects you to believe everything you’re seeing onstage, but certainly to identify with them, not just have a cut-out impression of what they are.”

A couple of real-life models inspired Carol King’s interpretations. “Leslie Howard’s performance in The Scarlet Pimpernel is a great model for Sarah Siddons in Nightmare,” says King. “He is a very overblown and exaggerated British flop. And I can borrow his mannerisms. Affectation is the key to Sarah. When she has to cope with real situations onstage, like people dropping their lines, she is lost. It’s not in her script.”

King’s work in local theater goes back about 14 years, including work at Russell Sage; she is a founding member of Shakespeare in the Park.

She plays Diane Symonds in Sister Mary, “who is very real. She could be very close to me. She went to a Catholic school, which is my background. And Diane wanted so hard to believe in this religion, which we all do – and there’s a disillusionment that I think so many of us feel.”

Her confrontation with Sister Mary puts her up against Marilyn Semerad, who also shares a Catholic background. “Sister Mary reminds me of so many of the nuns I knew back at St. Joseph’s Academy when I was a little girl.”

“She is a very charming woman. Much of her charm lies in her sincerity – she is genuinely caring of her students’ welfare, and, really, all mankind; and I think that’s why she is giving the lecture that opens the play.”

“And therein lies the difficulty in playing her. She always tells the truth--but it’s her truth. And the actress has to convey that truth. If I don’t tell the truth, the audience isn’t going to believe in Sister Mary Ignatius. I have to say very sincerely some things I don’t really believe in sincerely.”

Semerad just finished directing a production of Under Milk Wood at the Junior College of Albany; before that she directed Medea at the College of St. Rose.

And, ironically, she was recently involved in a production of Agnes of God.

“Sister Mary is a remarkable part, beautifully written,” she says. “That’s what usually attracts me to a part. I like to find a strong message being told by my character.”

Performances are at the RPI Chapel and Cultural Center at 8 PM tonight (Thursday), tomorrow and Saturday. Tickets are $5 ($2 for students) and will be sold at the door.

Metroland Magazine, 12 March 1987

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