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Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2008

Comically Unsettling

Theater Reviews

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Usually,when describing a small theater space people tend to use generally agreeable words like “cozy” or “intimate.” These words don’t really work for Boulevard Theatre’s latest production. In staging Casey Kurtti’s Catholic School Girls, director Mark Bucher’s tiny storefront space on South Kinnickinnic Avenue can best be described as comically unsettling.

The space at the Boulevard is only a tiny bit smaller than the average grade-school classroom. A line of four students’ desks sits onstage facing the audience right next to a teacher’s desk underneath a crucifix. When all the title characters are present and a nun enters the room, the atmosphere is unmistakable, even for those of us who went to public school.

Comparisons between Catholic School Girls and Late Nite Catechism begin and end with the atmosphere. While there is plenty of humor targeted at Catholicism in Catholic School Girls, the play has a solid plot centered around the title characters. There’s a compelling interac- tion between the characters that keeps the play from ever falling into the realm of stand-up comedy the way Catechism does. School Girls features four girls and four nuns in a hazily defined time roughly between Nov. 22, 1963 and the end of the ’60s. Anne Miller sympathetically plays uneasy iconoclast Elizabeth McHugh, the only girl in black stockings. Liz Mistele plays a preternaturally wise, rebellious girl named Colleen Dockery. Caitlin Kujawski is sweet as a girl of Polish descent named Wanda Sluszka. The most interesting, subtly dramatic character in the play is Maria Theresa Russo, an impoverished Hispanic girl deftly played by Marion Araujo. While McHugh is the thematic center of the play, Kurtti seems to have inadvertently made Russo a far more interesting character. Araujo does an impressive job of playing to the character’s strengths without unbalancing what is meant to be an ensemble piece.

Normally, having adult actors play children doesn’t feel right, especially in a town with such a good children’s theater company. Bucher has done such a good job of establishing a mood and atmosphere here that it all feels very natural. He’s aided immeasurably by the kind of authority wielded by some particularly talented actresses playing nuns, including Maureen Dornemann as the endearingly judgmental Sister Mary Thomasina and Karen Ambrosh as Sister Mary Lucille, who is fiercely Irish. Boulevard Theatre’s production of Catholic School Girls closes March 16.
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