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Nunsense
 
28/08/2001
The Malay Mail
EXCUSE ME, SISTERS, YOUR DRAWERS ARE SHOWING!
By Wilson Henry

It didn't matter that the Pi Mai Pi Mai Tang Tu set - which was borrowed - seemed terribly out of place and looked ugly as hell.

The nuns from Nunsense made such a strong impact that it wasn't long before the cranked-up set of nuns who turned up insisted that we suspend disbelief and take in every bit of the Broadway Nunsense they threw at the audience.

And when the beatific lot had turned everything on its head with bawdy singing, wild footwork and a recipe book that might provoke excommunication, the nuns had to chase the audience away.

"Go home, have a safe journey," says Shanthini Venugopal, half-crazed to even give them a benediction send-off.

Between them, Shanthini Venugopal, Suzan Manen, Mary George, Cheah Siew Oui and Zoë Christian were plausible brides of a convent that went over the edge when 52 of their kind were dispatched from their divine dwelling after consuming tainted tom yam soup.

But more than that, their Sister-this-and-Sister-that went beyond their severe black-and-white habits with an assortment of characters.

While the habit can be visually powerful and forceful enough to collectively get things done as nuns usually do - whether they are building schools or running hospitals - here each of the cast brought in elements that made Nunsense a successful staging.

There is more to the cloth, see.

Underneath the restraining habit were wild women waiting to escape. And from Shanthini's no-nonsense Sister Mary Regina, to the clueless Cheah's Sister Mary Amnesia, rowdy Mary George's Sister Robert Anne, the moderate always-number-two Suzan Manen's Mary Hubert and the impish Zoë Christian's Mary Leo, they added colour to Dan Goggin's unholy Nunsense.

When the glue-sniffing Mother Superior Sister Mary Regina bounced on stage - and tried to get the archery sister in charge of lighting to beam the spotlight - she thanked Sister Mary Myopia and at once provided the comic relief through her witty, shockingly unholy and well-timed lines.

And when she decided to seize her moment, there was Shanthini Venugopal cavorting and rolling on stage like never before with flowers and fruits on her head as she dreamed of a fame that she had to forego after entering the convent. If Instant Café Theatre overlooked "Convent Miranda's" full abilities, here she sang the roof off and gave some of the night's most exciting performance.

By the time her Mother Superior was delivering an upbeat cabaret number with Turn Up The Spotlight and sniffing glue with An Unexpected Discovery, Shanthini was really on a roll.

Why haven't we seen this wild side before, Shanthini? Maybe the script had a lot to do with it. More next time.

If Nunsense turned out to be a piece of untamed, unexpected entertainment that produced non-stop gags and had the audience roaring in laughter, much of that was based on taking something ultra-conservative and examining it with a wicked and sharp sense of humour.

In a religion where death has accompanying rituals, what do we get? Five nuns. Singing about raising money to bury some of the nuns.

They need money, and fast, because some of the dead are stuffed up blue in the freezer and Sister Mary Amnesia just happened to forget passing on a message to the Mother Superior that the Jabatan Kesihatan wants the freezer cleaned out.

And while raising funds, they decide to unleash their talent while Mother Superior makes sure that none of them go overboard - especially her wildest charge, Sister "Rowdy" Robert Anne who sings Playing Second Fiddle with much enthusiasm - that by the end of the day she proved to have one of the purest singing voices around.

If the stereotypical nun got on stage, she began to unravel with the material. By the time the plot unhinged itself, the Sisters had revealed too much of a musical talent and got the applause.

Individually, each of them showed an astonishing singing range. After all, this was Broadway material, and between them, the cast managed to deliver the songs individually as well as collectively, although on occasion, one of them did end up shouting her lines - she sang the high note with too much vigour.

But then every convent always has that one nun who enthusiastically likes to outdo everyone else with her "divine office singing".

While Dan Goggin's patchwork of nuns might seem close to what American religious congregations were in the '50s and '60s, the nuns themselves these days might laugh at what their predecessors had to wear and the accompanying piety that went along with it.

These bingo-playing nuns - who play with the Jesuits - end up opening up more unexpected boxes of humour in the middle of raising funds.

When they try to get on with the show, Mother Superior ends up with a catastrophe on her hands when she does some book promotion - Baking With The Blessed Virgin Mary - and ends up with less-than-holy culinary tips.

With them, there are layers of laughter - similar to that of real women with shared values living together with vows of poverty, chastity and obedience intact.

There is enough material here to examine the female condition, and have a laugh at the same time as their traits and characters come undone like a wimple losing its pins.

Goggin's musical does not just go crazy on the plot as he provides some behind-the-scenes bits of these virgins in seclusion. The nuns sing what it takes to remain a consecrated virgin with a hilarious look at a novice in the convent that led Zoë Christian exaggeratedly writhing on stage as the "Dying Nun" to the ballet movements of a Dying Swan.

She collapses, struggles, falls, gets up again and makes the most horrible expressions as she struggles with death.

The audience? They were howling and it was surprising to find that the Mother Superior did not hand out lines or some kind of penance which nuns are notorious for.

If anyone seemed suitable to play the dazed and forgetful Sister Mary Amnesia, Cheah Siew Oui did not just have a face to go with it, she played Mary Amnesia to the hilt.

She blinked and sighed each time she tried to remember her past, and had the pious expression of nuns that only proves she must have been hanging around a few herself.

And when she sang her bit about her Nashville aspirations, forgetful here proved that she not only could act but sing as well.

If she exasperated the rest of the Little Sisters of Kampong Pandan, it was the Mother Superior who felt the brunt of it; she hoped Sister Mary would remember something, perhaps even discovering herself to be a Franciscan instead.

If these days nuns have discarded their distinctiveness in a hasty bid to blend in with the rest, these nuns from Nunsense retain the peculiarities of the past as well as the obvious traits linked to them.

The cast successfully brought these out and none in the audience - even those unfamiliar with nuns - couldn't say that they haven't met them all; from the prissy meticulous type, the stern type, the bumbling one or even the fresh-faced recruit because the cast notoriously left a little bit of all these behind.

Nunsense provided a variety of showbiz and Broadway-styled tunes with mostly upbeat numbers except for the deceptively solemn Veni Sancti Spiritus opening and Growing Up Catholic number. The dance steps were anything but demure as the nuns tap-danced, did killer kicks, can-can and every move that one would expect floozies to do on a regular basis at a cheap bordello.

If anyone was expecting anything holy, the nuns made it very clear that they were going to misbehave throughout the evening, when Sister Robert Anne set the mood by getting the audience to root for their Mother Superior.

And the audience could not have misbehaved better.

And Mother Superior? She is hardly going to heaven after all those wisecracking jokes she inflicted on the audience.

Oh and that bit about giving out recipes from Sister Julia bless-her-soul's Baking with Blessed Virgin Mary cookery book - the woman is going to purgatory for that.

But the biggest kick is this - she won't be alone down there. We'll all be joining her.

This is a must-see.