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Theater review: ‘Nunsense’ antics put audience in laughing habit

The Reverend Mother walked on the stage, surrounded by her gaggle of nuns, and I was immediately transported back to 1990.

That’s when I first saw Jean Hardie play the Reverend Mother and Patricia Brady play Sister Mary Amnesia in “Nunsense” on the Spokane Civic Theatre stage.

My response was exactly the same Friday night as it was 21 years ago: I laughed, I groaned happily at the puns, I rocked back and forth in my chair, I slapped my knee and I did everything short of roll in the aisle, which I did metaphorically.

This amazing ensemble hasn’t lost a step in two decades. Again, I’m speaking metaphorically. They have lost an actual step or two – the high-kicking routine has been cut – but they’re as sharp as ever when it comes to delivering deadpan “saint” jokes and Catholic cookbook jokes (a recipe for Mary Magdalene Tarts, for instance).

“Nunsense,” as we have learned over the years, exists for one reason and one reason only: as a showcase for comic actresses to ham it up in a wimple.

This cast, assembled by director Troy Nickerson, is essentially an all-star cast from past Spokane versions of “Nunsense.” Besides Hardie and Brady, it features the hysterical Kathie Doyle-Lipe as the second-in-command, Sister Mary Hubert; the wonderful Abbey Crawford as the street-smart Sister Robert Anne; and the endearing Jillian Wylie as the ballet-dancing novice, Sister Mary Leo. Wylie is also the only “Nunsense” novice – the others have all donned the “Nunsense” habit many times before.

Hardie, in fact, was performing this show for about the 150th or 200th time – she has lost track. As much as this show is a total-ensemble success, I have to pay homage to Hardie in what may be her final “Nunsense” production.

The biggest, most sustained laughs in this show come in two scenes, both of which belong to Hardie. First is the scene in which the Reverend Mother unleashes her inner burlesque queen and starts bumping and grinding to “Turn Up the Spotlight.” And when the Reverend Mother bumps, the shock waves hit the back of the house.

The second comes when she accidentally inhales some kind of drug called Rush. Here’s how Hardie plays that scene: She giggles, she mixes up words, she stops and says, “That’s not right,” she starts over again, she begins laughing uncontrollably, she falls down, she rolls around, she rolls off the stage, she enlists an audience member to boost her back up, she expresses stern disapproval at his choice of hand placement, she pauses a beat, she asks him to do it again, she does a killer-whale impersonation, she …

Well, you get the idea. The entire audience was laughing uncontrollably right along with her. Talk about a perfect match of performer and role.

And I also have to pay homage to Doyle-Lipe, whose two particular talents are fitted ideally to “Nunsense.” First, there’s her knack for athletic comedy. Who else can get a laugh just by popping onto a counter stool? Her other talent, perhaps underrated, is her perfect deadpan glare. Few can get so many laughs from a slow burn.

Yet these two performers by no means upstage the others. Brady has great comic instincts, Crawford provides the show’s best emotional moments, and Wylie is charming throughout.

I was a little worried about this production for a few minutes at the beginning. It started with the nuns roaming through the audience and improvising with the crowd. It seemed, probably inevitably, a little awkward and forced. We just didn’t know these characters yet. But once the show started, it didn’t take long for them to become old friends.

I have only one bit of bad news: The show has already sold out. That announcement came in the pre-show speech. So you’ll just have to hope that these ladies can be talked into donning the habit again someday. How does 2021 sound?

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