I did not have a religious upbringing, so I have no theological aversion to nuns. Yet when I read the press release for The Collision / The Martyrdom, a couple of plays involving a few things nunnish, I did crease my brow and wonder at just how dull such an evening of theater was going to be. I’m delighted to report I was completely off the mark, and these two plays were highly enjoyable.
Act I: The Collision and What Came After, or Gunch! by Nadja Leonhard-Hooper is a story of three nuns, Sisters Gudrun, Anise and Gunch, living in a small convent in the German town of Grebenstein during the high medieval period. Charged with writing out copies of the Bible for missionaries to carry out to the world, Gudrun and Anise have only managed to write out 69 copies, and Anise is quick to point out that they’ve fallen behind the sisters in a neighboring convent in Gandersheim (who have written out 71 copies) because Gunch is illiterate. Their whole world is turned upside down when a meteor crashes into a nearby field, and the wacky antics of these nuns get only wackier, Gunch’s illiteracy being just the tip of the meteor. All three of these nuns have quirks and idiosyncrasies which do not fail to amuse, and when one of the meteor shards becomes embedded in Gunch’s head, not only does it not kill her but it changes her in many ways which only furthers the plot along.
Leonhard-Hooper’s script is zany, clever and fast, and director Lily Riopelle has expertly navigated the actors and scenes to achieve the best comedic pacing and humor.
Let’s talk about the actors after we see what’s happening over in the neighboring village of Gandersheim.
Act II: The Martyrdom (I’ll spare you the long title) is about a super old play called Dulcitius, written in the Dark Ages by a nun from the aforementioned Gandersheim named Hrotsvitha, allegedly the first known female playwright. Dulcitius was written as a comedy, even though the subject matter is so bleak–three virgins are put to death because they refuse to give up their devotion to Christ–hysterical, right?
Well, The Martyrdom adds some layers which make for plenty of laughs even with such a plot. The through line of The Martyrdom is the original play Dulcitius, but the actors ultimately play other actors playing the various roles of Dulcitius in various productions across the centuries which follow. Starting in Gandersheim, the cast takes on the 10th century monks who originally read through Dulcitius, then some nuns in 15th century Budapest, puppeteers with marionettes in fin-de-siècle Paris, suffragettes in 1914 Britain, students at the University of Michigan in 1955, and finishing off in the present day as the playwright, translator and director of this very show.
With translation help for the original text of Dulcitius from cast member Lizzie Fox, the new text by Amanda Keating which sews together these multiple productions into one story is quite brilliant. Informational tidbits are dropped in between the transitions about the relevance of the times in which each of these productions is mounted, and there is history revealed amidst the entertainment. The direction by Molly Clifford orchestrating this entire play is impressive.
So back to the actors: Lizzie Fox, Halima Henderson, Layla Khoshnoudi, and Emma Ramos. To try and inventory each of these performers’ talents and how they shine in the multiple parts they play would result in a lengthy dissertation. Suffice to say that each gives nuanced, expressive, and deftly funny portrayals of a myriad of roles.
The scenic design by Cate McCrea and the costume design by Nicole Slaven are minimal and efficient yet effectively on target. Props/puppet designer Liz Oakley gets a special nod for her Parisian puppets, especially the soldiers who become doormen when their little caps drop down onto their heads from their strings.
Throughout The Collision / The Martyrdom there resonates an overarching message of female empowerment, a message that provides depth to the otherwise light comedy being served up. Nuns are habit forming, that’s what people say, and this viewer wanted nothing more than to run back and see this show again just to watch the actors’ faces and see them having so much fun.
The Collision / The Martyrdom (through February 5, 2022)
Two Headed Rep
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets visit http://www.59e59.org/shows/show-detail/the-collision-the-martyrdom/
Running time: two hours and 40 minutes including one intermission