BEYOND THE SCREEN: On Sunday afternoons, nun's the wiser movie reviewer
June 15, 2007
By Richard Knight Jr
Special to the Tribune
Looking for a weekend movie matinee suggestion? Try the Royal George Theatre on Sunday afternoons for “Sunday School Cinema.” When Mother Superior starts talking about her passion for movies -- especially classics revolving around Catholicism -- theater and movies quickly find common ground. If Mother Superior’s worship of “Going My Way” doesn’t make a believer out of you, she’s ready to render verdicts on everything from “Ocean's Thirteen” to “Debbie Does Dallas.”
“We thought what would be funny is that Mother Superior’s a real expert at older religious movies but also adores contemporary film,” explained Elaine Carlson, who plays the role.
“The character is looking at today’s movies through that conservative Catholic pre-Vatican II lens,” said Vicki Quade, playwright and producer of “Sunday School Cinema.”
Quade was looking to create a third one-woman show to revolve around her successful nun characters, both Sister in and Mother Superior in Put the Nuns in Charge!.
“I know movies and I know Catholicism, and I just thought it would be funny to combine the two,” Quade said.
After completing a working draft of the script in March, she asked “Put the Nuns in Charge!” director Cecile D. Keenan and Carlson, one of the actors who portrays Mother Superior in that show, to take on this new project. Carlson immersed herself in classic films of the religious genre while Quade supplied mini-reviews of current movies for her to work from. This nun is prepped for all kinds of films. “If people want to talk about war movies, horror movies and yes, pornography, I'm ready,” Carlson said.
The resulting show is deceptively simple. A group gathers in a classroom-like setting to hear a talk on the art of cinema, but the visiting lecturer doesn't show up. Not about to return the “donations,” Mother Superior takes on the challenge herself. Though “Sunday School Cinema” is scripted, it also allows for group participation. Favorite films from audience members are submitted beforehand, with the nun offering her opinion on many of these. “Mother Superior takes everything and turns it right around to some religious aspect,” Quade said. “With ‘The Fugitive,’ for example, after being told that it’s about a man wrongfully accused of a crime, Mother Superior might respond, ‘Wrongfully accused, eh? That sounds a lot like Jesus Christ to me,’ and expand on that. Elaine is wonderfully quick with the audience and can think fast on her feet.”
At a recent show, after a young woman cited “Shrek the Third” as her favorite film, Mother Superior, without missing a beat, said, “Those children’s movies aren’t too taxing for the brain, are they, dear?”
She also invited audience members to guess if certain dead movie stars such as Joan Crawford, Cary Grant and Frank Sinatra ended up in heaven or hell, based on her foolproof secret formula. Most vividly, she enlisted audience member Steve Hickson to help her in re-enacting key moments from 1943’s “The Song of Bernadette.” To the horror and glee of the spectators, Hickson jokingly tossed a statute of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Mother Superior during an especially reverent moment of the re-enactment. “I actually threw it to her -- not at her,” Hickson recalled with a laugh. “I was raised Catholic, and I figured I could outrun her and her ruler if I had to.”
Mother Superior sent Hickson to the back of the room to contemplate his sins but brought him back onstage to help out with a song from “The Sound of Music.” Others have not been so fortunate. The nun explains the history of the Catholic movie rating system – “B” for “morally objectionable in part” and “C” for “condemned” -- while asking for examples of “Condemned” titles. Carlson recalled a performance in which a woman had seen every “condemned” movie mentioned. “I made her come up and put her nose in a circle on the chalkboard because she’d seen them all,” Carlson said. “For every one she admitted seeing I lowered that circle until she was on her knees ready to do penance. The audience loved it. We were not anticipating them getting so excited about participating.”
“There’s a joyous spontaneity that I loved about the show,” Hickson said. “I was raised a Catholic but I would guess that non-Catholics will love it as well. There’s a great vein of comedy in the play that Vicki has tapped.”
Sunday School Cinema is playing at 3 p.m. Sundays at the Royal George Theatre, 1641 N. Halsted St. For tickets and more information, call 312-988-9000 or visit www.sundayschoolcinema .com.