What's Black and White and Red All Over?

The good sisters light up some sacred herb: Steven Epp and Robert Rosen in 'The Nuns'
Michal Daniel

I am determined to make The Nuns a runaway hit if it is within my powers to do so, so let me start this review with a series of ad-ready quotes. Go now! Take your friends! Make your friends take their friends! Round up hobos by the rail yard and take them to the Jeune Lune! Do not eat, sleep, or eliminate bodily waste until you have seen this play! If you could take only one Franco-American theater troupe to a deserted Polynesian island, and they could take only one play with them, let it be the Jeune Lune, and make them bring Eduardo Manet's The Nuns!

All right, I am not very good at providing pithy pullquotes for a bus-stop poster, but you get my point. I want to see more plays like The Nuns and less like, oh, say, Nunsense A-Men!, even though both star men in black habits. I would very much like it if, at least once per season, every theater company in the Twin Cities made it a point to track down worthy but seldom-produced pieces by extraordinary but obscure international playwrights. But theater companies have a healthy concern for the bottom line, and so I am asking for help here: Let's get people lined up around the block for this one, can't we? Is it too much to ask that a few thousand theater patrons sleep in pup tents in the Jeune Lune ticket line for a week or so to improve the local theater scene? We'll all be a little better off in the long run, but for now, won't you do it for me? If we can't collectively keep The Nuns going for a few solid months of sold-out run, well, quite frankly, we don't deserve the theater we do have, and the next time I see you offering a standing ovation at a fusty Guthrie play, I will shoot you a very dirty look. Dirtier than usual.

Telling of three very bad nuns holed up in the basement of an abandoned Haitian warehouse at the tail end of the country's 18th-century revolution, Manet's magnificent script is a scabrous, wicked, and deeply troubling piece of writing. (It debuted in the tumultuous Paris of 1969.) The play is made all the more disquieting by the fact that the Jeune Lune has decided to mount it as a clown show. The fact that the company has filled every spare second of performance time with fussy, complicated bits of comic stage business is no surprise--it is, after all, part of what they are famous for. Like many in the Jeune Lune company, Manet studied with Jacques Lecoq in Paris, and his script indicates numerous spots where the stage action can deteriorate into comic lunacy. (It also calls for the all-male sisterhood.)

What surprises is that the clowning here is so grotesque. Steven Epp, for example, plays a sweet-tempered and simpleminded nun named Sister Inez, made mute when revolutionaries plucked her tongue from her throat and deaf when they fired a pistol near her head. Epp circles the stage for the first half of the production tending to the garrulous Mother Superior (Robert Rosen) while blithely ignoring the brutish Sister Angela (Vincent Gracieux). The latter two obliquely scheme to rob a wealthy young benefactress (Barbra Berlovitz) of her jewelry. As they do so, Inez appears, presciently holding a light out for the Mother Superior's cigar, appearing moments later with a shovel for the ashes, and then scampering offstage to grab a guitar and howl tuneless melodies.

It all seems very cute at first--indeed, but for the mutilation, there is a character much like this one in Nunsense A-Men!. But Inez has a disconcerting habit of joyfully opening her mouth to reveal the stump of her tongue, particularly to the benefactress. And, as the play progresses and the nuns' scheme goes awry, the comedy pitches itself blacker and blacker. Soon Inez will be drenched in blood and filth and trapped with her fellow nuns in the warehouse, terrified into madness by revolution in the streets outside. She'll watch in horror as a corpse, seemingly animated by the throbbing drums outside, leaps to its feet and launches into a merry tumbling routine. The moment is both ghastly and outrageous, drawing explosive laughter and shouts of mortal horror. It is a rare and exhilarating thing to experience both emotions at once.

I have grown cynical about the honesty of audience applause, which, after one too many gratuitous standing ovations, now strikes me as a social nicety that is almost entirely unrelated to the show being saluted. But the final shock of The Nuns' opening night was the response of its audience. It was a seated ovation, but enthusiastic, and grew in enthusiasm after the cast had taken their final curtain call. The Jeune Lune's patrons spontaneously began to stamp their feet on the ground, noisily demanding yet another curtain call--one that would not come. But even as the Jeune Lune's stage went dark and the house lights came up, the audience continued to stamp, as if they too, by sheer rhythmic force, could animate the dead.

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