Photos courtesy Cat Johnson, of the Artistic Edge
BACK IN THE HABIT: Marilyn Farina, the original Mother Superior in “Nunsense,” will reprise her role at the Courthouse Center for the Arts this month.
What’s black and white and playing at the Courthouse Center for the Arts? The zany musical comedy “Nunsense,” of course!
Reprising the role she originated in the off-Broadway production of the show is the original Mother Superior, Marilyn Farina. Farina last appeared in Rhode Island on stage at Theatre by the Sea, where she enjoyed a successful run of “Nunsense.”
But the history of the show goes back further than that.
Farina and her pal Dan Goggin, the play’s writer, created the show back in the 1980s. Back then, Goggin had a mannequin dressed as a nun in his apartment that he fondly called Sister Mary Mannequin. One day, Goggin asked Farina to don the habit for a lark, and Farina began to craft a character.
Together, they wrote and produced greeting cards bearing witty captions and photos of Farina as the Mother Superior. As the cards took off commercially, Farina began making public appearances as “Sister Mary Cardelia [as in ‘card dealer’].”
The character became so developed that Goggin and Farina decided to put together a show around Cardelia. Add a cast of four more nuns, and the result was the initial version of the “Nunsense,” cabaret show.
The cabaret version ran for 58 weeks in 1982. Then Goggin began to script the play, pulling the best lines from improvisations the cast did.
The show opened in 1985 at the Cherry Lane Theater in Manhattan’s West Village. Eventually, the show was kicked out because the theater’s management thought it wouldn’t be successful and the show moved to the Sheridan Square Playhouse in Greenwich Village.
“It just got bigger and bigger,” she said. “The crowds on the weekends were raucous.”
The show enjoyed a 10-year run at the Sheridan Square and Farina popped in and out of the cast, taking time out of New York to play the role in out-of-town versions.
“I took it out to venues in San Francisco, Boston and Detroit,” she said.
Farina, who attended Catholic school for her whole childhood, said she drew inspiration from her teachers. The result is someone that Farina can easily transform herself into but is entirely different from herself.
“I always say that I can’t do anything but Cardelia can do anything,” she said. “I put on the habit and I become part Jackie Gleason, part Lucille Ball.”
Farina said Cardelia thinks she’s got a handle on everything but bad things keep happening around her.
“She’s got a heart of gold,” she said. “Of course the big problem is that she’s got four dead nuns in the freezer.”
Farina said the show changes every night and includes improvised bits that are funny to audiences of all kinds.
“One night, we had 26 nuns and Yoko Ono in the audience,” she said.
Farina says you don’t have to be Catholic to enjoy the show.
“Nuns are funny,” she said.
Farina is the only person who can play the role of Cardelia. In the script, Mother Superior is Mary Regina, but when Farina hits the stage, she’s Cardelia.
“Most people thought I was a 65-year-old Irish woman,” she said of her performances back in the 1980s. “Today I am a 65-year-old Italian woman.”
Although doing the show is like riding a bicycle for Farina, she said learning the new choreography and staging for the Courthouse’s version has been a bit of a challenge. Still, Farina said the role is hers.
“It fits like a glove,” said Farina of the show. “I’m so ingrained in the character. It’s so me.”
Farina said it has been at least 10 years since she last performed the role.
“I thought I had broken the habit,” she said with a chuckle, and slapped her knee.
“Nunsense” runs at the Courthouse Center for the Arts in West Kingston now through June 3. Performances are Thursday-Sunday, and tickets are $15-$25. Tickets can be purchased by calling 782-1018 ext. 8. More information at www.courthousearts.org.