Thursday, December 6, 2012

HART's Nuncrackers has 'Heart'

Back Row, left to right: Leslie Inmon (Sister Mary Hubert), Jeannine Stassens
(Reverend Mother), Kent Upton (Father Virgil), Wendy Bax (Sister Amnesia)
Front Row, left to Right: Jennifer Yamashiro (Sister Robert Anne), Erin Zelazny (Sister Leo)
By Tina Art and Darrell Baker
H.A.R.T. Theatre’s production of “Nuncrackers” - the Christmas offering of the ubiquitous “Nunsense” franchise - provides an unapologetically wacky homage to the onrushing holiday season.
Director Butch Vandehey (aka “Brother Butch”) refers, in his Director’s Notes, to the H.A.R.T. as “a theatre that wants so much to bring the community together.” A packed and enthusiastic house plus a cast comprised of both H.A.R.T. veterans and newcomers (including seven local students) illustrates the progress that H.A.R.T. has made in achieving this goal. The plea from the stage for audience donations to help Hoboken victims of Hurricane Sandy reinforces the company’s sincerity, meshing real world community spirit with the make-believe world of theater.

The ostensible setting for the entire show is a small TV studio, recently purchased for the Little Sisters of Hoboken with Publisher’s Clearing House winnings. The nuns, priest, and schoolchildren from St. Helens School are taping their first Christmas special, under the deft guidance of cameraman/director Brother Butch. Predictably, nothing that can go right does….

As with many Christmas comedies, “Nuncrackers” relies on the skewering of holiday traditions for much of its humor – but the comic potential is expanded with typically Nunsensical slings and arrows aimed at entrenched stereotypes about Catholicism.  Where another show might seat the audience to an overture, this one seats us to a series of sometimes slightly off-color jokes being delivered by the nuns. The highlight of the opening is definitely Sister Mary Paul (Wendy Bax) who wanders around the seats presenting Secret Santa gifts to particularly lucky audience members while delivering her thoroughly unorthodox commentary on the packages.

While there are a few serious moments, the cast members are at their best when they throw caution to the winds. Father Virgil (Kent Upton) and Sr. Mary Regina (Jeanine Stassens) display surprising agility in their terpsichorean attack on “The Nutcracker,” and both are also accomplished comedic vocalists. Other comic highlights are delivered by Sr. Robert Anne (the irreverent “misfit nun” played by Jennifer Yamashiro) and the aforementioned Sister Mary Paul, whose country singing and holiday malapropisms are a steady source of laughter. More poignant moments are also deftly handled, particularly by Jennifer Yamashiro and several of the students.

Although this is by no means a traditional musical, the show relies on both the vocal abilities of the cast and skillful accompaniment – the latter provided beautifully by pianist Alice Dalrymple (Sister Margaretta) and a sorely neglected percussionist (Brother Liam Cooper?) who is buried in the shadows but adds a great deal nonetheless.

The set for the show is quite wonderful – especially the telescoping nativity scene, cleverly hidden behind an otherwise inexplicable set of barn doors. Lighting and special effects are equally impressive – especially the little touch of Christmas snow at the end of the show.

Congratulations to the H.A.R.T. Theatre at the conclusion of 2012. This year’s audiences have been treated to a wide array of productions – some experimental, some original, all entertaining, and we look forward to next year’s offerings.

“Nuncrackers” is playing at the Hillsboro Artists’ Regional Theatre, 185 SE Washington, Hillsboro through December 23d.



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