nytheatre.com review by Eric Winick
August 12, 2006
In Fringeland, one does what one can to attract an audience. Often, this means taking to the streets, confronting passersby with leaflets, or performing excerpts in front of one's venue. Sometimes, a provocative picture is taken that ends up in a local publication, a lucky break for any company. Occasionally, troupes with little money must resort to more radical ends. In the case of Vanda Productions' Vile Affections, in order to represent her show, the producer has chosen an illustration of two nuns making out. The description in the Fringe program guide states, "The true story of Benedetta Carlini uncovers the first written record of a lesbian relationship." Based on these two items, one would expect Vile to be a play about... say it...
If you guessed "lesbian nuns," you're only partially correct.
Vile Affections is the true story of Ms. Carlini (Osa Wallender), a 17th century nun who caused quite a stir when she claimed that Jesus was making regular trips to her cell, where he ravished her nightly. This made Carlini quite the BNOC, with all the others nuns flocking to her for spiritual advice and guidance. When the government caught wind of Carlini's antics, however, a provost was sent to examine Carlini and get to the bottom of the brouhaha. He discovers something, alright, but in the course of the investigation winds up questioning his beliefs, as well as religion's right to tell scientists how to do their jobs.
The playwright, Vanda, has chosen to tell Carlini's tale simply, shifting back and forth in time from the investigation to the actual story, with occasional blurring of the lines between. It's a mostly effective technique, and there's no denying the pulpy appeal of Carlini's story—especially once she befriends naïve Sister Bartolomea (Kate Hettesheimer), who falls under Carlini's spell and comes to believe it's not Carlini who's seducing her, but a good spirit named Splenditello. Intriguingly, the two do not consummate their passion until late in the play. Anyone who's spent the prior hour and 45 minutes expecting to see nuns swapping spit has endured a long wait indeed.
Under the direction of Franka Fiala, the production is lackluster, with the three male actors faring especially badly. The women at least make interesting choices, and Wallender turns in a fierce, fearless performance that nearly saves the day. Sadly, the air conditioning in the Linhart died during the performance I saw, slowing the pace to a trickle and making the show, already a bit of a slog, something of a trial to sit through. Thankfully, the subject matter proves fascinating throughout, and the playwright's thoughtful rendering of Carlini's life compensated for the production's woes.