Home, Home on Durang

Sol Theatre's double-header walks the line between hell and, yawn, purgatory

When Sol Theatre gets a production just right, it seems animalistic and reptilian and not entirely proper, like you've eaten a few too many micrograms of some evil cousin of LSD that transports you not to Nirvana or even Millbrook. Suddenly, you're in some low-lit salon in one of the bawdier circles of hell, where the Marquis de Sade wiles away eternity barebacking Emily Dickinson in chaps and a paste-on Hitler mustache. It's a foreign, mystical, and vaguely nerve-racking place, and those who visit are something like existential anthropologists, observing the workings of a culture and locale they will never understand and can inhabit only momentarily.

There's always an element of chaos at Sol Theatre. The art these folks crank out is anti-polished, relying on a seat-of-the-pants and oh-fuck-let's-just-do-it ethos. This can be giddily exhilarating to audiences but deadly dangerous to performers, who, like a good old-school punk band, walk a fine line between inspired incompetence and tedium. On a good night, that inspired incompetence is transcendent — think Patti Smith's first record crossed with Pink Flamingoes. On a bad night, it's merely dirty and chaotic, signifying not much at all — think Patti Smith's last record, crossed with The Aristocrats.

Sol Theatre's new Christopher Durang double-header walks that line. Boozily. It starts off with a promising burst of dada in The Actor's Nightmare, continues to splash around in its irreverent perversity for the first 20 minutes of Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You, and then suffers an identity crisis, leaving audiences scratching their heads, unsure not only of how to respond (usually a good thing) but of what Sol was trying for in the first place (usually bad).

The Actor's Nightmare is a funny little one-act, following a fellow who may or may not be named George (Jeison Tomi, who somehow takes the look of a deer caught in the headlights and makes it talk, sing, and dance). He discovers that, oops, he is the understudy of an actor named Eddie, and he's about to get sucked onstage for some Coward, Beckett, and Shakespeare, opposite Sarah Siddons, Ellen Terry, and Henry Irving (all 19th-century British stage actors). He doesn't know the plays, doesn't know his lines, and yet the productions rumble on. He's helpless to stop them. In the end, an executioner lops off his head because he, or the character he's been forced to play, refuses to admit papal fallibility and allow Henry VIII to marry Anne Boleyn. George protests — he's not all that religious, really, and the pope's probably just an ordinary guy, as prone to mistakes as anyone. The key line of the piece comes from the executioner: "I'm going to ignore what you've said and cut your head off anyway." Vicious little world, isn't it?

There is an intermission, after which we meet Sister Mary Ignatius, played by Daivd Tarryn-Grae with precisely the same mix of affected good will and seething, sublimated malevolence always possessed by nuns in lapsed Catholics' dankest nightmares (those who've been there know what I mean; the rest of you should count your blessings). Tarryn-Grae played Sarah Siddons in The Actor's Nightmare, and that was creepy enough — lacking historical information on what Siddons was really like, Tarryn-Grae played her like some mutant netherworld variant of Meryl Streep, an imperious, hulking blond who's spent a few too many years summering at Chernobyl. Here, the affected imperiousness of the theater is gone, replaced with the steely-eyed certitude possessed by true believers and cold-blooded crazies since time immemorial. It's terrifying, because people like this really exist.

Cosmology is where Sister Mary Ignatius begins: God, sin, heaven, hell (a place filled with "unspeakable physical torments which I shall, nonetheless, speak of later"), purgatory (where, depending on the number of venial sins on your soul at your moment of death, ye shall reside for 300 to 700,000,000,000 years), and limbo (where reside all the unbaptized babies who died before Vatican II, after which they were permitted to enter purgatory). The delight one finds in the sister's early monologue is in how little she hedges her bets. When people of faith speak, they usually gloss over the logical contradictions inherent in their belief systems. Not so with Sister Mary Ignatius. If you're going to get into heaven, you'd better get down with the dogma, no matter how absurdly counterintuitive it might be.

The sister eventually brings on a pupil, a 7-year-old by the name of Thomas (Jeff Holmes, torturing his falsetto to hilarious if occasionally painful-sounding effect), who vomits up bits of catechism he's been taught in exchange for chocolate chip cookies, which the sister places on his tongue like Eucharists. Together, the two answer questions written by fictional audience members on little cards stashed in a basket near the sister's lectern and explicate some of the finer points of Catholic theology with regard to papal infallibility, the hierarchies of sin, and sodomy ("that thing that makes God puke").

All's well so far. Trouble arises when Julia Clearwood, Jenna Gavaletz, and Jeison Tomi appear as some of Sister Ignatius' former pupils. It is at this moment that Durang intends his show to blast off into anti-narrative craziness, but this is precisely where Sol Theatre opts to get serious.

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