‘The Actor’s Nightmare’ and ‘Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All’ at Bay Theatre Co. by Amanda Gunther

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We’ve all had that nightmare— showing up in our underwear and not knowing what we supposed to say or how we got there? Now imagine that magnified tenfold; being on stage in front of a huge live audience and having the same dilemma four times over. And certainly many of us are familiar with that too strict teacher from our grade school days; perhaps some of us even had that tyrant of a nun who would smack your fingers with a yardstick. Both of these scenarios are what you will find in the double-billed comedic genius of Bay Theatre Company’s evening with Christopher Durang featuring two one act plays: The Actor’s Nightmare and Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All. Directed by Richard Pilcher, these uproarious if risqué comedies will have you rolling in the aisles, of course bringing a sense of humor is required.

A fair warning, the latter of the two plays does contain mature themes and takes a good humorous stab at the Catholicism, so those that are easily offended or have sensitivities to religion should come along anyhow and see what you’ve been missing.

Steven Carpenter and Valerie Leonard. Photo courtesy of Bay Theatre Company.
Steven Carpenter and Valerie Leonard. Photo by Stan Barouh.

Director Richard Pilcher pulls together a fine cast of talented actors to achieve maximum hilarity from Durang’s work whilst maintaining the integrity of the heavier moments that due fall in the second play. It’s a night well worth seeing— even if you have your doubts— and speaking from the standpoint of a Catholic, albeit lapsed, all of the references are extremely relatable and make for a jolly good evening.

Costume Designers Christina McAlpine and Jackie Colestock liven up the gray interior of the rotating stages with some vivacious pieces that are appropriate for all of the plays presented in The Actor’s Nightmare. With stunning evening gowns for the ladies whilst reciting lines from Private Lives you’d never know they didn’t come straight out of Coward’s Closet. Colestock also assembles the perfect nun’s uniform right down to the hanging rosary and cross at her waist. We see velvet for Horatio in a mockup of Hamlet and the perfect blend of modern clothing for the alumni students of Sister Mary’s class later on. Colestock makes this no small task and succeeds in giving that extra ounce of pizzazz to the show with her dashing designs.

Essentially you’re seeing two completely different shows that have nothing in common except for the actors and the playwright. This, however, is not a problem as they both share the same humorous tone throughout the evening and the disconnect between them happens during the intermission. The Actor’s Nightmare is performed first giving the comedic style of Durang’s work a chance to sink in.

Everyone adapts to their assigned role in the first performance, everyone of course except for Steve Carpenter who is playing ‘George Spelvin,’ the man in the nightmare who doesn’t know his lines. Carpenter gives us a great deal of accidental comedy by timing his lines just so to land epic lines that sound unintentional but really showcase his knowledge of how to make an awkward situation hilarious. His nervous approach to the role exudes genuine panic; relating to the audience the exact feelings of anxiety we see clearly written across his face. He finds impeccable (and intentional) comic timing when he’s chasing through spotlights that won’t leave him alone, the zinger of show delivered with gumption as he screams Lady M’s famous line up at said light.

Carpenter’s interactions with the characters are priceless. When taking on actress Sarah Siddons (played by Valerie Leonard) he simply falls to pieces as she remains in her haughty character of Amanda from Private Lives. Leonard approaches this and all her other characters with gusto, this one in particular with growing levels of distress etched subtly across her face as she repeats the same line over and over with maddening insanity. She holds poses of high society that are strung through her posture and reflect out to the audience in her manner of speaking, all while making Carpenter look ever more the bumbling idiot.

When they progress to End Game the audience encounters the cockney trashcan girl played by Alicia Sweeney. She’s an absolute hoot, her body moving as if she actually were a dolly on a string, and if you take nothing else memorable away from this production it will be the way she pauses. Pause. Sweeney owns the role with her brash cockney sound keeping in her character despite Carpenter’s continued failure to find his place in the play.

Switching gears to post intermission when Sister Mary (Rena Cherry Brown) takes the stage, the performances are even more engaging and hysterical. There’s a keen balance between Brown’s deadpan and sarcasm to her devotional belief in what she’s preaching, making her a comic riot. The longer the play progresses the loopier she gets. Brown embodies everything stereotypical about the perfect school instructing nun from her disapproving glares to her bubbly nature when a student is behaving, and no actor is better suited for this diabolical uproarious role.

Rena Cherry Browne (Sister Mary Ignatius) with Drew Sharpe. Photo courtesy of Bay Theatre Company.
Rena Cherry Browne (Sister Mary Ignatius) with Drew Sharpe. Photo by Stan Barouh.

The whole show gets upended when four former students arrive to put on a pageant from one of sister’s favorite students. Steve Carpenter, Paul Edward Hope, Valerie Leonard, and Alicia Sweeney take to the stage in what can only be described as bad acting— but it’s completely intentional and utterly hilarious. They trudge their way through a makeshift abbreviated version of Christ’s life with everything you hate about bad acting from the awkward pauses to the lack of intonation in their voice, and normally this would be unbearable, but set against the ridiculous props— and the sentient camel— as well as the on-looking nun it becomes an absolute gut-busting riot.

And it gets better— there’s actual quality acting to be had in this production as well. Carpenter, Hope, Leonard, and Sweeney are forced to own up to how their lives have not turned out perfect the way Sister Mary had anticipated, leading to a downward spiral of chaos that results in a spastic ending that will have you gasping in total shock and disbelief. Carpenter delves into his character with a shy coyness that balances the edgier approach Leonard brings to her alumni student. Hope and Sweeney are equally mild but compassionate in their presentation.

Leonard steals the thunder toward the end of the play, going toe to toe with Brown and there is nothing quite as scary as a disgruntled student whose life’s failure come pouring out with gripping passion and compelling trauma. Except perhaps the responses that Brown gives as an irate nun who adapts the holier-than-God complex. These two women face off exceptionally well providing a tempestuous storm of thrilling drama in this otherwise bouncy comedy. Leonard carries the gravity of everything heavy and dark upon her shoulders and does so in such a way that the audience is practically weeping for her; the performance so engaging and so grounded in this raw reality that you cannot take your eyes off of her.

Brown will take you on a rollercoaster ride throughout this production— and keep your eyes out for little Thomas (Drew Sharpe) her up and coming protégé. Perhaps the cutest young actor to take to such a bizarre role, Sharpe fits right into the Catholic student mold that Durang has set for him, and adds another complexly comedic layer to this zany production.

Take Sister Mary’s advice. Pray to Saint Anthony— patron saint of lost things— in hopes that you will find your way to Bay Theatre Company before it’s too late.

Running Time: Approximately 2 hours with one intermission.

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The Actor’s Nightmare & Sister May Ignatius Explains It All plays through March 17, 2013 at The Bay Theatre Company – 275 West Street, in downtown Annapolis, MD. For tickets call (410) 268-1333, or purchase them online.

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Amanda Gunther is an actress, a writer, and loves the theatre. She graduated with her BFA in acting from the University of Maryland Baltimore County and spent two years studying abroad in Sydney, Australia at the University of New South Wales. Her time spent in Sydney taught her a lot about the performing arts, from Improv Comedy to performance art drama done completely in the dark. She loves theatre of all kinds, but loves musicals the best. When she’s not working, if she’s not at the theatre, you can usually find her reading a book, working on ideas for her own books, or just relaxing and taking in the sights and sounds of her Baltimore hometown. She loves to travel, exploring new venues for performing arts and other leisurely activities. Writing for the DCMetroTheaterArts as a Senior Writer gives her a chance to pursue her passion of the theatre and will broaden her horizons in the writer’s field.