The Divine Sister 

Divine in Drag

Charles Busch's The Divine Sister tells the story of a mother superior who decides to tear down her crumbly old convent and replace it with a shiny new one. Which is kind of the reverse image of the Village Rep Co.'s past year.

Previously known locally as that theater in the shopping center next to the Food Lion on Coleman Boulevard, Village Rep is in the midst of a very public reinvention inside the 1913 Meddin Brothers meat packing plant on Woolfe Street. After 11 years in a convenient, generic Mt. Pleasant setting, Village Rep is starting over in what amounts to a hip, gritty, converted warehouse within throwing distance of Upper King.

So when it came to staging The Divine Sister, director Keely Enright had an epiphany.

"The original set design was more traditional," she says, gesturing toward the theater's bare back wall, where partially plastered, mostly exposed brick practically whispers the word patina. "And then I realized I've got an old, crumbly convent going for me right here."

Both the theater and the play represent important themes in Village Rep's emerging story. Eleven years in Mt. Pleasant provided the company with a healthy foundation of patrons, but running a professional theater in a town that's locally synonymous with suburban tastes offered its own drawbacks. Upper King Street has more artistic prominence, but also more competition for theater-goers. So whether it's the company's new branding or the ongoing renovations to the Woolfe Street Playhouse or her choices for this first downtown season, Enright is threading a moving needle.

"Our seasons have always been very diverse, but we very often got pigeon-holed as suburban theater, or safe theater, and if you go back and look at the history of the works we've done, that is not the case," Enright says, shouting over the banshee screams of the power tools assembling her new stage. "So I wanted to be clear with this season that we were open to doing diverse things. I didn't want it to be a safe season."

Which explains — in part, anyway — Enright's choice of a campy, off-Broadway Hollywood drag show about nuns set in 1966 for the season's second main-stage production.

With its playwright also starring as its leading lady, The Divine Sister was a critically acclaimed off-Broadway hit in 2010-11 (New York Times writer Ben Brantley called it "Busch's freshest, funniest work in years, perhaps decades"). Los Angeles native Enright, who directed two of Busch's plays in Mt. Pleasant, says she loves Busch's "gleefully twisted" take on old Hollywood.

The Divine Sister is a fond homage to every Hollywood movie ever made about nuns, with a bizarre non sequitur nod to Howard Hawks' rapid-fire 1940 newspaper comedy His Girl Friday, Enright says."It's very sweet, it's very raunchy, it's very respectful. If you can put all that together."

Well, one can certainly try, though it's a safe bet someone will take offense. Enright shrugs off the prospect politely, but given the company's new urban setting, whatever fallout she gets is likely to be mild compared to the drubbing Village Rep took in 2009 for on-stage nudity in the gay-themed The Little Dog Laughed. And as always, the flip side of controversy is publicity, particularly among the new crop of twentysomething theater-goers Enright hopes to add to her audience.

Enright cast the six-actor play primarily from the company's core pool of talent, handing the starring role to Jimmy Flannery, a local stage veteran who impressed her with his turn as Fagin in her 2010 production of Oliver Twist. Which means most of the new faces in this comedy are likely to be found scattered around the barn-like theater's cabaret-style seating. At least that's the hope.

"Most days I want everyone to be happy, but there are plays that we do because they matter, or because they make me laugh, or because there's a message there, and we do them anyway," Enright says. "I think this one is delightful."

Jan. 17-19, 24-26, 31, Feb. 1-2 at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 20, 27 at 3 p.m. $25-$30. Woolfe Street Playhouse


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