Divine Sister act raises holy, hilarious hell at NCTC

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The cast of New Conservatory Theatre Center’s daffy Divine Sister includes (from left) David Bicha as Sister Agnes, Matt Weimer as Jeremy, Marie O’Donnell as Sister Acacius, Joe Wicht as Mother Superior, and Conrad Frank as Sister Walburga. Below: (from left) Wicht’s Mother Superior confers with O’Donnell’s Sister Acacius, while Bicha’s Sister Agnes and Frank’s Sister Walburga look for holy images in a pair of soiled underpants. Photos by Lois Tema Photography

Clutch your rosary beads and get ready to laugh. New Conservatory Theatre Center’s The Divine Sister by Charles Busch (a national treasure, even if the entire nation isn’t quite aware of it yet) is the funniest thing you’ll see on a stage this Pride Season

Director F. Allen Sawyer and his spot-on cast – some in drag, some in habits, some in miniskirts, some in full-body black latex – are having a blast with Busch’s wry and wily send-up of ever movie ever made featuring nuns. From Soeur Sourire and her guitar-strumming hit “Dominique” to Roz Russell riding holy herd on Hayley Mills in The Trouble with Angels, this show doesn’t miss a reference.

Singing nuns of Sister Act? Got ’em. Flying nun a la Sally Field…er, well maybe not every reference. But nuns and comedy are a good match (Nunsense anyone? No thanks, I’ll take Busch any day), especially when the fun is being orchestrated by Sawyer, a director who knows just how to balance camp, comedy and solid storytelling.

First, you start out with a convent in trouble. This one, including its elementary school, is in Pittsburgh. The year is 1966, and Mother Superior (Joe Wicht, as reliable a drag actor as there’s ever been) has to go begging from the loaded local Jewish widow (Michaela Greeley) to raise money to raze the crumbling convent and build a slick new ’60s complex.

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But this won’t be easy, especially with things in a bit of a frenzy in the convent. A young postulant, Agnes (David Bicha, who does dizzy, vacant eyes better than anyone) is purported to have great healing powers and she has visions. For instance, she sees the image of Saint Claire in a pair of schoolboy’s urine-stained underwear. A visiting nun from Berlin, Sister Walberga (J. Conrad Frank, who combines vixen sexiness with German aggression in ways both terrifying and terribly funny) is having secret DaVinci Code-like meetings with an old monk in the basement, and the wrestling coach, Sister Acacius (Marie O’Donnell, who has Mary Wickes-like common sense) is harboring a secret that will change everything.

As if that’s not enough plot, a movie executive (Matt Weimer, who plays it straight and still gets a bundle of laughs) comes sniffing around to see if the stories about the powerful postulant are true. Turns out he knew Mother Superior and Sister Acacius back in another life when they were blowing the roof off of hard-boiled journalism.

All of this unfolds on a comic book-colorful set by Kuo-Hao Lo, and the pace is never slack but never rushed. There’s enough time for a few musical numbers and a whole lot of laughs. One of the funniest bits is also the foulest – Mother Superior’s transatlantic accent turns certain words a certain way, making Sister Acacius think she has been horribly maligned. And then the joke keeps running, right on to the gun-wielding climax.

Is it all silly? Yes, terribly. Is it hilarious? Yes, terribly. As summer comedies go, NCTC’s The Divine Sister means our prayers have been answered.

Charles’ Busch’s The Divine Sister continues through June 29 at the New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. Tickets are $25-$45. Visit www.nctcsf.org.

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