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.

If all these characters sound insane, you're on the right track. Because they're British, add a double dose of eccentricity to their behavior. Alice enjoys looking sexy in a baby-doll nightie and talks gibberish to her doll collection. Mrs. Mercy stands for morality, decency, and decorum but openly seduces Alice the moment they're left alone. And Madame Xenia weeps hysterically at the broadcast of Sister George's funeral, even though she lives in the same apartment building as the real actress.

As with other excellent scripts of this type, fine writing turns silliness into saltiness, absurdity into acute comments about the ruthlessness of show business, the hypocrisy of organizations such as the BBC and the Catholic Church, and the general gullibility of the human race to belief in the faaades of life rather than the truth. ("Did you ever meet the real J.R. Ewing?" a college student once asked me.) From start to finish, Marcus makes the saga of Sister George a quick and clever amusement park ride, filled with zany surprises and frequent sight gags.

But the playwright hardly deserves all the credit for this stellar production. As mentioned, Ilse Earl should be applauded for supporting the offbeat rather than the tried, true, and dull. Director Ellen Davis, who teaches at New World School of the Arts, guides the action and actors with an expert hand, setting the perfect tone for the piece, never inhibited by the lack of stage space, enhancing rather than being overwhelmed by the oddity of the material. As Sister George, Marjorie O'Neill-Butler equals Beryl Reid in skill; one cannot imagine anyone playing the part better. Grounded in reality at all times A not an easy task with this tale A O'Neill-Butler embodies the alcoholic, Sapphic, ex-military officer and ex-captain of a girl's hockey team (I'm sure you get the picture). Aymee Garcia correctly camps up Madame Xenia to the point of embodying a woman playing a transvestite playing a woman, and Janet Raskin makes a marvelously sinister and sick Mrs. Mercy. Cristina Karman sometimes loses the proper handle on Alice, choosing sexy too frequently over juvenile but crafty. Still, she plays the role with honest gusto and sure does adorn those baby dolls.

For a jolly, jolting good time, tune in on the "girlish banter," as Sister George calls it, at the small and excellent Miami Actor's Studio.

Stage Notes
Blaine Dunham -- who founded the Lunatic Theater Company last year with Ricardo Lopez Parata and Shawn O'Brien and presented a fine rendition of John Patrick Shanley's Danny and the Deep Blue Sea at Washington Square A tells me the Lunatic's next outing will be Lanford Wilson's powerhouse piece Burn This, sometime in September. Again the company will opt for site-specific theater, meaning that the production takes place in a venue suited to the action of the play. So far the Warsaw Ballroom looks to be the primary choice for Wilson's work, since the piece is set in a loft-warehouse-style apartment.

Coconut Grove's next season promises some gems, such as David Mamet's new hit about sexual harassment, Oleanna, as well as Breaking Legs, another New York smash that mixes the worlds of theater and the Mafia (not a novel idea in the real world). For Neil Simon buffs, the Grove presents his newest, Jake's Women, and fans of Luis Santiero (he wrote 30 episodes of Que Pasa, U.S.A.?) can look forward to The Rooster and the Egg, which once again pokes tasteful fun at Miami-Cuban life. Aside from a musical tribute to Harold Arlen (Sweet & Hot) and a comedic look at divorce (Double Act), the lineup also will feature a new and possibly alarming example of art imitating popular films: a sequel to the musical Nunsense called -- get ready -- Nunsense II. What's next? Cats II: The Siamese

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