Curious George

When we found out that I might not grow to be taller than five feet, my family took to reminding me that "good things come in small packages." This overused aphorism came to mind as I sat in the Miami Actor's Studio A which holds no more than 50 people A after viewing their witty and winning production of The Killing of Sister George. Ilse Earl, a professional actress and educator who's been running the studio and teaching classes there since 1980, certainly knows how to take wise risks and make the most out of her limited space and facilities; she picks the finest casts, the most experienced directors, and highly entertaining works.

The Studio's most recent production, Power in the Blood, an original play by Florida State Individual Artists Grant winner Sarah E. Bewley, was a unique and satisfying piece about evangelism, one that might well herald the ascendance of a local literary light. Now comes Sister George, a bizarre dark comedy that caused a buzz in theater circles when it debuted in 1965 because of its obvious lesbian slant, a matter not taken for granted 30 years ago, as the script of Sister George tends to do. The fact that most of the characters prefer the company of women is presented as secondary to the plot's action, unlike most "gay" plays of today which stress homosexuality as the major point. The other unusual feature was the tone itself, since this work predated such dark pranksters as Christopher Durang and Charles Ludlam. Audiences wondered whether the piece was meant to be taken seriously, and if so, why were the characters and dialogue frequently so absurd they naturally evoked giggles?

Only three years later, but in a much more experimental cinematic climate, Robert Aldrich, that master director of femme fatale camp (Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte were both guided by his hand) turned Sister George into a film starring Beryl Reid (reprising her original stage role), and Susannah York. The film was soundly appreciated, especially by younger audiences and the intellectual set, but you'd be hard pressed to find a copy in your video store today. So much for the endurance of quirky art, I suppose.

If you've seen Charles Ludlam's cross-dressing classics Vampire Lesbians of Sodom and The Mystery of Irma Vep, you'll understand when I say that part of the genius of this piece is that the campiest characters are not played by males in ball gowns but by women in severely tailored suits and sensible shoes. For those not familiar with the form, imagine a lesbian slant on humor such as Durang's or even, at times, TV's The Simpsons.

Set in England during the early Sixties, when few citizens owned a television set and entertainment centered on the wireless (American translation: radio), the play is a send-up of the fabulously popular British soap opera The Archers, billed as "an everyday story of country folk," set in the small farming community of Ambridge and that aired on BBC radio from the late Forties until the early Sixties. Much as they continue to do today, soap fans back then became confused between reality and drama, writing impassioned letters to the serial's actresses and actors as though they really were the characters they portrayed. When a major player died, the audiences literally went into mourning, as though they'd lost a cherished friend. (Should the infamous Erica Kane be hit by a bus tomorrow, die-hard fans of All My Children might well sport black ribbons on their lapels, notwithstanding the fact that Susan Lucci, who plays Kane, remained very much alive.)

In Marcus's play, the mythical community of the radio soap is called Applehurst and its major stalwart a district nurse named Sister George, who tends to the sick and the wounded, saves the lives of farm animals, and steers young children off the wrong track. Every soul in Applehurst, not to mention the working-class listeners tuned in all across England, adore earthy, maternal Sister George, who tools around the country on her newly invented moped, mending bones and solving personal dilemmas.

But the actress who plays George is a beast of a different stripe; a middle-age butch named June Buckridge, who drinks too much, gets into brawls, and torments her immature live-in lover, Alice "Childie" McNaught. She even terrifies two nuns when they inadvertantly get into her drunken path. Passive just isn't a word in June's vocabulary.

Nevertheless, she does love George, to the point of using the character's name as her own nickname. The actress herself often crosses the line between real and make-believe, just like her fans. She frames, mounts, and cherishes every award June receives as George from actual hospitals and charities, who also can't seem to get it through their heads that they're listening to fiction. Understandably, when June gets wind of rumors that the BBC may be considering George's demise in order to boost sagging ratings, she almost goes batty. The bleakness of the situation increases when she consults her friend, the "psychometrist" gypsy, Madame Xenia, who sees mucho trouble ahead. The omens finally culminate in the worst possible scenario when June receives a visit from the incredibly neurotic Mrs. Mercy Croft, both the head of daytime programming and the ill-qualified host of a Dear Abby-type radio show.

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