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Saturday, February 18, 2017

Latest from Stage West Calgary: Drinking Habits, by Tom Smith

Drinking Habits

Photos courtesy Stage West Calgary

Given that religion is in the news in a very polarizing manner as of late, perhaps it is prudent timing to have this rollicking glimpse into a fictional convent on stage right now at Stage West Calgary.

A broad farce of human nature set behind religious trappings, Drinking Habits is both a wordplay on the dress of nuns, and a nod to this particular order’s penchant for brewing up a little bit of illicit vino to help keep their convent afloat. 

Utilizing every element of classic farces in the tool chest, playwright Tom Smith takes familiar stereotypes of the Christian faith and blends them with intrepid journalism (fake news?) to provide hearty and continual laughs, once the cast has been introduced, and the scene set.

I’ll have my official Calgary Herald review next week to follow this one, so just a few highlights here:

The Sisters Of Perpetual Sewing is a very small order, barely scraping by, alongside an even smaller neighbouring parish. A note from Rome arrives to indicate there may be some scrutiny, and if necessary, both may be closed if not found sufficiently worthy (profitable).

Cue the paranoia around who the spy will be, the elaborate schemes to catch him or her in the act, add slamming doors and mistaken identities, and you have all those aforementioned farce elements, just then requiring an able cast to draw the audience along in a convincing enough manner. 

Here, director J. Sean Elliott has outdone himself, populating this little world with a stable of talent that brings exceptional comic timing to Smith’s well-conceived story - it’s worth noting that there’s already a sequel to this fun-fest, and an award. The play picked up the Robert J. Pickering Award for Excellence in Playwriting in 2004.

Photos courtesy Stage West Calgary

Alphabetically, the cast includes Al Braatz as George, the gentle-natured, goofy groundskeeper that gets recruited into Mother Superior’s plan to root out the holy spy sent to investigate. But he ends up having an even greater deception that plays into the results.

Natascha Girgis is Sister Augusta, one of the two denizens of the sparsely populated convent - and she is a delight in every aspect of her role here. Whether that may be conspiring to keep the illicit wine business on the down-low, or as she develops her detective skills to make sense of the added population introduced by happenstance from afar, Girgis draws plenty of belly-laughs from a well written role.

Charlie Gould is Sally, the runaway bride bent on elevating her journalistic career to a rightful place, or basically any place aside from where she has been languishing in that effort. She goes undercover in the convent with determination. And a nun’s habit…

Elinor Holt is a marvellous Mother Superior, somewhat oblivious to what her fellow nuns have been doing behind her back, but well determined to prevent whatever that might be from coming to an abrupt end. To that end, she directs espionage to out the spies that would be right home in an episode of TV’s Get Smart.  

Robert Klein is Father Chenille of the tiny parish next door, wrought with anguish that he is about to be replaced by a younger priest. Jeremy LaPalme is Sally's partner in the undercover press, Paul - also her ex-fiancĂ©, but maybe not so ex as she might be thinking. 

Esther Purves-Smith is the other nun in the order, and her Achilles Heel appears to be a lack of any ability to lie, which plays out towards the build-up to the finale in a scene-stealing display of emotion. 

The final element is Sister Mary Catherine (Arielle Rombough), who is not quite yet a nun, but she’s still very vital to how this all unfolds. It is after all a puzzle that must fit together for the twists and turns at the end, which may be there on display all along for intrepid mystery fans in the audience. 

Based on the laughter last night, I think this stands out as one of the strongest farces in recent memory.

5 out of 5 stars.

Link back here when the official Calgary Herald review is out!

Drinking Habits runs to April 16.

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