Divinely hilarious - Charles Busch’s nun story

by JC Alvarez

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday November 30, 2010


Charles Busch has made a habit of creating the type of comedic moments that take his audiences back to simpler, more whimsical moments in American popular history. A time when there were surfer chicks (Pyscho Beach Party), wartime heroines (The Lady in Question) and, as he is in his latest comedy, The Divine Sister, a nun, the matriarch of a Catholic school (St. Veronica's) with a unique cast of oddball characters that come together after several incredible revelations.

As expected critics and audiences are completely captivated with Busch's return to the stage. "Cue the 'Hallelujah' chorus," raved Ben Brantley in the New York Times. "Charles Busch has put on a nun's habit and is talking to God, from whom he has evidently received blessed counsel. 'The Divine Sister,' his new comedy at the SoHo Playhouse, finds Mr. Busch returned to peak form. This gleefully twisted tale of the secret lives of nuns - in which the playwright doubles as leading lady - is Mr. Busch's freshest, funniest work in years, perhaps decades."

"I'm having a marvelous time," he explains about performing and having written his latest hit, "and I'm usually ambivalent about how I feel about the shows I'm in. I treat everything as if it's my farewell to the stage."

True grande dame

Spoken like the true grande dame that he has come to personify over his career as a performer and playwright. Fear not, though, Charles is not inclined to hang up those nun's robes or box those wigs just yet. As evidenced by the Brantley quote, Busch has been receiving some of his best notices ever, in part due to his witty ability to satirize immediately identifiable film genres.

"There seems to be this underlying nostalgia for the era of the movies that I am parodying, and also for the 80s, the era from which I sprung," Charles suspects. But however contrived the formula may seem, it once again proves a winner for the gifted artist who started out humbly performing and perfecting his craft in an art gallery/theater - the Limbo Lounge -- in what was the decrepit environs of Alphabet City nearly thirty years ago.

That was with Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, which moved across town to the Provincetown Playhouse and become one of the longest running plays in off-Broadway history. More movie parodies followed including Psycho Beach Party, The Lady in Question and Die, Mommie, Die! in which he both wrote and performed.

Story continues on followinng page:

Watch this interview with Charles Busch and Julie Halston talk about The Divine Sister:

Watch Charles Busch address issues of bullying and homophobia:

A film historian

Busch has been elaborating on his persona (inspired by such great movie actresses as Greer Garson, Rosalind Russell and Eve Arden) and the parodies he's crafted (which pay homage to classic films from its Hollywood's golden age) with much-deserved success.

"I'm so affectionate to these movies," he shares. "I'm something of a film historian, and I pick rather obscure genres that I have a fondness for."

This is exemplified with The Divine Sister's nod to film noir detective dramas and Hollywood religiosity made popular with such 196os films as The Trouble With Angels and The Singing Nun as seen through Busch's inspired eyes. "It's outrageous and bawdy -- everything you write is after all rather personal," he insists, but "I like to think that the audience is getting involved in the story and the crazy emotions of the piece."

In the play Busch is reuniting with Julie Halston, with whom he worked with in Vampire Lesbians of Sodom in 1984, and the chemistry between these two skilled comedians is evidenced on stage. Halston's role as "Sister Acacius" is much more the drag queen to Busch's more centered "Mother Superior". Which is just how Busch wrote the parts.

"My role is a lot more low-key than Julie's. I tend to always appear the cool center of this mad world." This, he says, heightens the comedic experience; that is, having his characters a little bit off-center to his pivotal role. "It's kind of how I work best," he says, confounding his audiences' expectations.

Iconic femme fatales

I asked Charles about playing this string of iconic femme fatales he's created over the years that put him in the spotlight well before female impersonation moved into the mainstream of popular culture. In other words, how does his use of this classic art form compared with modern drag?

"I don't know," he answered with a bit of ambivalence in his voice, "I wear female clothes -- and you can call it drag -- but I'm an actor. I like to think that the audience forgets that I'm a guy and loses themselves in that character... and of course there's the dual-thing of what I'm doing."

After all part of the joke is that Busch's audiences are indulging themselves in watching Charles Busch playing this actress of a certain age who is playing "Mother Superior."

"It's an interesting meta-theatrical experience especially because the audience is playing a role as well," Charles gleefully explains. "After all everyone in the audience is expected to be present to play the role of an adoring audience to this actress, as well." And perform to expectation the audience does, although it's impossible to resist once the slapstick absurdity commences.

With his latest success Charles has been introduced to an entirely new audience that may not have been exposed to his satirical comedy and charming characterizations. "I've had such an odd career," Busch describes. "There are people who may only have seen me from the movies I've been in," notably the gayly-classics Psycho Beach Party and Die Mommie Die, or even his work on the hit HBO series Oz. "It seems to me like I'm always performing, although that may not be the case," he suggests, " but now I seem to be getting out there again. It is nice."

The success of The Divine Sister has certainly renewed the appreciation for this Drama Desk Award recipient and Tony-nominated playwright (for Tales of the Allergist's Wife, his 2001 Broadway hit than ran 777 performances). As for his return to the stage, performing still gives him a reason to pause. "You never know how an audience is going to react, but everyone has been really responding to The Divine Sister -- it's been very gratifying being able to make that happen."

The Divine Sister continues it's run at the SoHo Playhouse located at 15 Vandam Street in New York City. For show times and ticket info the show's website.

Watch this conversation with Charles Busch and Liza Minnelli on In The Life:

Watch Charles Busch impersonate Joan Crawford and Bette Davis:

Native New Yorker JC Alvarez is a pop-culture enthusiast and the nightlife chronicler of the club scene and its celebrity denizens from coast-to-coast. He is the on-air host of the nationally syndicated radio show "Out Loud & Live!" and is also on the panel of the local-access talk show "Talking About".