Two Classic One-Act Comedies Presented by Fever Dream Repertory

by Ronald Comer

SISTER MARY IGNATIUS EXPLAINS IT ALL FOR YOU and THE ACTOR’S NIGHTMARE, two plays by Christopher Durang are being performed on the 2nd stage at the Adrienne, April 8th through the 23rd. First double-billed in New York in 1981, these two offbeat, if not absurdist, comedies have delighted audiences in various theatrical productions since then. Durang even expanded the script for Sister Mary Ignatius into a 2001 film version starring Diane Keaton in the title role.

Fever Dream Repertory's cast of SISTER MARY IGNATIUS EXPLAINS IT ALL TO YOU: Peter Danzig, Trever Sweatt, Nancy Segal, Katharine Schellman, Colin DiGarbo (obscured), Heather Cole (photo by Matthew Hurst)

Fever Dream’s productions of both plays take place on a mostly bare stage, particularly in the opening presentation of THE ACTOR’S NIGHTMARE. Imagine finding yourself on stage, not sure of why you are there and being informed by a stage manager that you will be taking over a role for an injured actor in thirty minutes, and you do not know anything about any play being performed, much less why anyone thinks that you are the person who should be stepping in to take the missing actor’s place. In real life, this isn’t an unfamiliar actor’s nightmare, which makes viewing this fast-moving one-act play so entertaining.

Peter Zielinski seems perfectly perplexed in his portrayal of George, who finds himself in an ever deepening theatrical quagmire of confusion as to who or what he is supposed to say in response to other actors once the lights come up. If it wasn’t so strangely funny to observe him as he struggles with what to say next, his dilemma would almost be too painful to watch. But, Zielinski does a terrific job of resisting the temptation to over-play his character’s understandable sense of panic and confusion allowing us to identify all the more with his seeming inescapable predicament.

Wonderful expressions of impatience and frustration are delivered by the other actors appearing on stage with the bewildered George. Katharine Schellman is very funny in her attempts as actress Sarah Siddons to connect with this clueless understudy. She, along with Katherine Cooper and Kevin Costello, who play other actors who must carry on with their parts despite George’s inability to ever get on the same page, are great fun to watch as they struggle to confidently act their parts in the absence of support from their fellow actor. As the stage manager, frantically attempting to keep the play moving forward through cueing of lines to George, Brie Knight, adds still more opportunities for laughter in this first of two plays presented.

The second play, SISTER MARY IGNATIOUS EXPLAINS IT ALL, opens with Sister Mary delivering once again her well-honed lecture on heaven, hell and purgatory. As her name might suggest, based as it is on Saint Ignatius, Sister Mary has instructed generations of students in the critical importance of absolute obedience to the Pope and to superiors. Thus, there are many opportunities throughout this play for those familiar with Catholic dogma to experience the humor associated with this Sister’s attempts to avoid addressing threats to the otherwise infallible doctrines she finds it her duty to impart. We see in the opening scenes her effect on a well-trained seven year old pupil, played with just the right amount of youthful enthusiasm by Trever Sweatt, who earns cookies like a performing seal for answering correctly each of Sister Mary’s catechism questions.

Interrupting Sister Mary’s lecture delivered straight to the audience, which at times made this play more fun, was the appearance of four former students, now grown adults, who have ostensibly returned to perform parts in a Christmas pageant piece she had once taught them. However, their more significant purpose is to confront Sister Mary Ignatius with the specific traumatic impacts on them as children each in their own way has carried into their adult lives. It is at this point in his play that Durang adds rather biting elements of comedy to his otherwise lighter satire on the Catholic schooling experience. That which transpires in the midst of this confrontation between former students and teacher is a compelling piece of drama that earned an Obie Award for Durang and the actress playing Sister Mary in the original 1979 off-Broadway production. Performing in Fever Dream’s production as the now grown children are Peter Andrew Danzig, Heather Cole, Katharine Schellman, and Colin DiGarbo. Nancy Segal plays Sister Mary Ignatius.

Although SISTER MARY IGNATIUS EXPLAINS IT ALL TO YOU receives top billing in this double-header, I found THE ACTOR’S NIGHTMARE to be the more satisfying comedy of the night. Performances in the second play of the evening seemed weaker due to all too frequent struggles with lines which normally might have been overlooked had the roles themselves been played with more authenticity. Instead, opportunities for actors to more fully connect with their characters and with each other and the audience failed to fully materialize.

by Christopher Durang
April 8-23, 2011
Fever Dream Repertory
Second Stage at The Adrienne
2030 Sansom St, 2nd Floor
Philadelphia PA

You may also like

Leave a Reply