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Laughing at Our Nightmares – Two comedies at Bay Theatre Company

In Sister Mary Ignatius and in The Actor’s Nightmare are plights you’ll remember from your past and in your dreams

Steve Carpenter, Valerie Leonard, Rena Cherry Brown and Paul Hope in The Actor’s Nightmare. <<photo by Stan Barouh>>

Winter has a way of boxing us into our insular realities. Bay Theatre unfolds them with mind-bending comedy in a double bill of one-acts: the Obie Award-winning satire Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You! and The Actor’s Nightmare. Both are by Christopher Durang, sometimes referred to as Christopher Deranged.
    The stage is set with an ancient stone edifice featuring skewed doorways behind a marble balustrade or altar. A church courtyard, perhaps, where we will meet Sr. Mary Ignatius? No, as it turns out we are in The Actor’s Nightmare, a place suitable for any number of British classics, where George Spelvin (Steve Carpenter) has wandered onstage into the worst conundrum of his profession as last minute replacement for a lead who has broken both legs.
    Spelvin’s name is a pseudonym traditionally employed by performers who wish to remain anonymous, and it’s easy to see why he would in this classic testing dream with a thespian twist. Backstage he is hailed by Stage Manager Meg (Rena Cherry Brown) and theater legends Sarah Siddons (Valerie Leonard), Henry Irving (Paul Edward Hope) and Ellen Terry (Alicia Sweeney). Each knows him by a different name; none will tell him what show they are performing.
     Costumed for Shakespeare, he wanders onstage into a production of Noel Coward’s Private Lives. Of course he doesn’t realize that until five minutes under the spotlight groping for clues. As he attains a small measure of comfort in that role, the action changes to Hamlet, and he spouts snippets recalled from texts from Romeo and Juliet to the Pledge of Allegiance. Just when it seems the story cannot get weirder, Spelvin finds himself in a mishmash of Beckett plays in the tradition of Theater of the Absurd.
    Carpenter’s awkwardness is sidesplitting funny and so real it spawned testing dreams in my sleep for two nights.
    Sister Mary Ignatius is funny in a different way. Artistic Director Janet Luby promises in the program that, “most people will love this play, some will hate it and a few will walk out as they have in productions across the country.”
     Opening night, however, proved her wrong. No one left or groused aloud. This cradle Catholic found the militaristic nun (Cherry Brown) hilarious as she walked the line between indulgence and scorn, sanity and insanity. She is as real as and as false as my memories.
    Durang’s iconoclastic work sets the religious education of his baby-boomer childhood in institutional white adorned with portraits of Christ, Mary, Pope John Paul II, Kennedy and Reagan.
    Sister is aided in her mission of educating the audience by angelic seven-year old, Thomas (double cast with Andrew ‘Drew’ Sharpe and Parker Warren), who spouts doctrine for sweet rewards. They are visited by four former students; Diane (Leonard), Gary (Hope), Philomena (Sweeney) and Aloysius (Carpenter), who have returned after 20 years to perform their old pageant, a send-up of Christ’s life from the nativity to the crucifixion, starring a baby doll nailed to the cross. When post-show small talk turns acrimonious, the students confess to having come for the sole purpose of humiliating their sadistic taskmaster.
    Sister will not be bested by a bunch of lapsed brats, one of whom she adds to her partial list of the damned. I will not ruin the plot with further explanation except that to say — Sister has her reasons for being so bent, Sharpe’s innocent collaboration in the ensuing carnage is brilliant and Leonard is heartbreaking as the former good girl whose faith could not support a lifetime of hard knocks.
    This is a polished production, from the Elizabethan doublets to the childish camel costume and the roving spotlights that corner Spelvin at every turn. Richard Philcher directs for the second time this season, following his collaboration with Cherry Brown in last season’s smash hit Wit, which earned her a Helen Hayes Award.
    This show is not appropriate for children, but thoughtful adults and teens will enjoy the ride

Set: Ken Sheats and Dan Interlandi. Lights: Marianne Meadows. Costumes: Jackie Colestock and Christina McAlpine. Stage Manager: Raine Bode.
Playing thru Mar. 17, Th-Sa 8pm, Su at 2pm at Bay Theatre Company, 275 West St. Annapolis. $40 w/discounts; rsvp: 800-503-9463; www.baytheatre.org.