The Madman and the Nun at Ambassador Theater


The Mead Theatre is, indeed, a lab. As soon as you enter the lobby, you are immersed in what appears to be an art exhibit — yes, you are in the right place — and invited to peruse programs in the guise of medical files.

David Berkenbilt as Dr. Grun and Mary Suib as Sister Barbara in "The Madman and the Nun." Photo by Magda Pinkowska.

The theatrical experiment begins fittingly early for Stanislaw Witkiewicz’s The Madman and the Nun, in which Dr. Bidello (a dementedly overdramatic Ivan Zizek) is only too eager to pawn his job of curing a deranged poet, Walpurg (John Stange), off on an unlucky nun and a freewheeling psychiatrist. Walpurg turns out to be the poet his new caregiver, Sister Anna (Jenny Donovan), read with her ex-fiancé, an engineer who committed suicide. This disclosure prompts Walpurg to quip, cheerfully, “So nowadays even engineers can have problems like that?” In no time at all, Sister Anna has returned Walpurg’s “I love you” and renounced her religion on his behalf. Let the farce begin.

Director Hanna Bondarewska has neatly orchestrated both the quietude necessary for the intimate moments between Walpurg and Sister Anna and the chaotic hilarity that ensues when the entire cast is onstage. Her swooping choreography when Anna helplessly joins Walpurg in a looping rocking sequence in one scene is mesmerizing.

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Jen Bevan as Attendant (Alfreda), James Randle as Attendant (Pafnutius), Mary Suib as Sister Barbara, Jenny Donovan as Sister Anna, David Berkenbilt as Dr. Grun and John Stange as Walpurg (Madman) in 'The Madman and the Nun.' Photo by Magda Pinkowska.

The ensemble is comprised of Mary Suib (as the chastising Sister Barbara with a “penitence complex”), David Berkenbilt (as the doctor with “a little too much of the sexual” in his theory), Ray Converse as the batty Professor Walldorff, James Randle and Jen Bevan as Attendants. Berkenbilt is delightfully absurd. When Walpurg kills Dr. Bidello in a fit of whimsical jealousy, he exclaims, “This is unheard of! So you really feel alright?” He is laughably recognizable as the psychiatrist who gets ‘treated’ by the patient. The croaky catch in Suib’s voice slows down her delivery making her punch lines all the better. Converse plays Walldorff as sexually ambiguous, making his critique of Berkenbilt’s “too sexual” theory all the more ironic.

John Stange brings a warm, strange humor to his portrayal of the straitjacketed, insane poet who oscillates between sarcastic cheeriness and paranoia, sometimes by merely redirecting the distance of his gaze. You’ll laugh hard when Walpurg and Anna are caught in flagrante because Jenny Donovan keeps the timid nun’s sexuality subtly latent.

Costume Designer Jen Bevan decks Donovan’s Anna out in a hot pink dress with chunky, sparkling heels to match. Set Designer Daniel Pinha has two monitors emitting colorful EEG waves on either side of a mounted mattress in the center of the stage. Marianne Meadows’ lighting effectively evokes the prison that is the sanitarium and David Crandall’s sound design is quietly omnipresent.

The finale is dissociation of the self-physicalized – and theatre of the absurd realized.

Running time: About 90 minutes.

The Madman and the Nun plays through December 18, 2011, at Ambassador Theater at the Mead Theatre Lab at Flashpoint – 916 G Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (202) 315-1306, or order them online.