It was a conversation between Nunsense playwright Dan Goggin and Hollywood Playhouse's artistic director, Andy Rogow, that gestated Meshuggah-Nuns! Rogow recommended adding a Jewish character to increase the already sizable audience for the play, but Goggin, schooled by nuns in Michigan parochial schools, thought he didn't have the Judaic background to pull it off. Still, the comment simmered in Goggin's brain.
Fast-forward two years and the idea has become the plot of the latest of Goggin's nun-centric plays -- an ocean cruise full of nuns expects Fiddler on the Roof as the main entertainment, but all the actors except for the one playing Tevye get seasick. Miraculously, the nuns survive the roiling waters unscathed. Did God himself protect his dedicated followers? Well, not exactly. "It started when Sister Julia, Child of God, put Dramamine in the brownies," one of the nuns quips.
All of this is handled in good fun rather than bad taste -- and hey, the actual nuns in the cast don't seem to have a problem with the material. Yes, Goggin went straight to the source, sending out a casting call to the Dominican sisters who taught him during his Michigan grade school years. More than four dozen responded. The result: "Fifty-two real nuns died in the soup," Goggin affirms. "They were the biggest hams, jostling for position so their families could see them." Jewish audiences seem to be getting into the (holy) spirit of things, as well: Gay temple Etz Chaim purchased a block of tickets for the show and brought the congregation en masse.
"The situations are situations that could have happened to anybody," Goggin says. "The thing that nuns are in it is so incongruous. People who haven't been around nuns a lot think they are so straight-laced and just wouldn't step out of line."
Nothing is safe from Goggin's satire. He spoofs the Village People with a number called "Matzo Man," where Tevye tries to sell matzo at the duty-free shop. The nuns approve, singing "He's almost Catholic with his hot cross buns." In another scene, the reverend mother gets a pie in the face. "You get the feeling that everyone in the audience says, 'Finally!'" Goggin says.
It's a good thing the play is funny. In a leap of faith, Andy Rogow booked the show without seeing it. "He just had to trust us," Goggin states. "I was hugely relieved to find out it worked." In fact, it worked so well that the play was extended for an additional week at the Hollywood Playhouse, then picked up for a second run at the Hollywood Central Performing Arts Center starting New Year's Eve.
But the real kicker is behind the scenes. The show's Tevye, actor Avi Hoffman, was last seen at the Hollywood Playhouse as Tevye in a real production of Fiddler. In that version, he sang the original "Tradition" instead of the guilt-laden "Contrition" Goggin penned for the penguins.