The Nunsbegins with a television screen suspended above a darkened stage. It turns and twists with no indication of what or who is moving it. Onscreen, the programs change without warning. Even after the mechanism of its movement is revealed (a nun as a human appliance stand adjusting for reception as another nun watches from a recliner with a plate of food and a glass of wine), the meaning of the prop and its contextual position is elusive. The play maintains this trajectory, vacillating between Dadaist assemblage and absurdity.
The play is set in Haiti in 1804 amidst revolution in the country. In 1802, Napoleon Bonaparte sought to restore slavery using his top general Victor LeClerc. Jean Jacques Dessalines and Henri Christophe fought to prevent the return of the system. Both sides were guilty of tremendous horror; LeClerc ordered the execution of blacks and Dessalines, in response, ordered the summary execution of all Europeans that opposed the new revolutionary government.
The nuns in question are men, or male actors playing nuns, or . . . well, this is never made clear. There is no attempt to disguise the fact that the inhabitants of the cloister garb are men. At the same time, however, there is no overt reference to this actuality. Early in the play, there is an oblique indication that "Mother Superior" (Robert Rosen) may be guilty of certain sexual proclivities while visiting outside of the abbey (a possibility that causes no small amount of jealousy in Sister Angela (Vincent Gracieux), but nothing rises to the surface in a recognizable form to explain why these men wear habits or how gender is germane to the play.
Plot is a secondary vehicle, overwhelmed by the strangeness of the landscape. The three nuns (Sister Inez [Steven Epp] is a developmentally disabled nun who is unable to hear or speak) are attempting to get off the island and enlist the help of The Senora (Barbara Berlovitz), or rather the wealth of The Senora for that aim. There is a botched murder attempt and confusing moral signifiers. The placement in 1804 Haiti seems only tangentially relevant.
In addition to the television screen, there are other examples of departure from period technology. A refrigerator functions as a reliquary complete with a Virgin Mary icon, a Billy Bob singing Bass, and a dancing flower. Power is supplied via an extension cord and the nuns perform an uncertain and heterogeneous mass in front of the glowing appliance as Patsy Cline sings in the background. These props seemed to be indications of a self-conscious cleverness, funny in places without enlarging or texturing the macabre fantasy.
Using absurdity to critique atrocity is neither a new nor ineffective technique. Eduardo Manet has precursors: Jean Genet, Samuel Beckett, Jean-Paul Sartre, even the Russian constructivists. Direct attacks often fall to the side as either unimaginative pedantry or simple propaganda, and the ability to make political art that is also timeless is challenging. Unfortunately, the elements of Manet's play fail to come together for any deeper resonance -even contingently. The audience's laughter, hearty in the opening sequences, fell off through the first act, as the play refused a form. By intermission, the piece seemed an arbitrary soup of signifiers.
The actions and dialogue of the characters reduced to a series of gags and untethered peculiarities. My curiosity was piqued, but the higher moral and existential goals of the play remained unachieved.
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