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SISTER MARY IGNATIUS EXPLAINS IT ALL FOR YOU and THE NATURE AND PURPOSE OF THE UNIVERSE

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As far as dark, biting commentaries on religion go, these two Christopher Durang satires are relatively tame. Although Durang certainly captures the "dark" aspect—both vignettes feature some pretty twisted plot points—these works ultimately lack sufficient bite. The jokes and jibes here, which target the Catholic Church and the concept of blind religious faith, tend to strike all the same timeworn chords. But what the scripts lack in fresh comedy they more than make up for in the character department. Featuring a cache of alternately offbeat, fanatical, delusional, and zany personalities, the plays reveal that characterization is Durang's strong suit. It's also clearly the forte of this company's players, who take their characters' idiosyncrasies and quirks to humorous extremes.

In Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You, humorless Sister Mary Ignatius (Sharyn Case) is the quintessential taskmaster nun. As she leads the audience through a sober catechism lesson, she wields her righteousness with an unyielding obsession. It's not surprising, then, that the lesson takes an unsettling downturn when a group of disgruntled former pupils shows up. In the end—after these former charges air their various complaints—an unexpectedly violent denouement puts a new spin on the meaning of divine retribution.

Case injects the right balance of comical sternness and scary fanaticism into her role as Sister Mary. It's hard not to flinch under her steely gaze or laugh at her zealous teaching methods. Also effective is Rachel Hirsch, who plays a former student seeking revenge for Sister Mary's strict inculcation of what she deems the church's dubious teachings. The crackling interplay between these two is at first amusing but quickly turns chilling. Under Alexander Rodriguez's solid direction, this blend of humor and edgy tension is an arresting combination—one that also crops up in the second staging.

In The Nature and Purpose of the Universe, the more blatantly zany offering, Durang presents the oddball story of Eleanor Mann (Deborah Conroy), a beleaguered housewife whose life is beyond unbearable: Her husband (David Cramer) is a controlling, abusive lout, and her three sons are enormous disappointments. But throughout all the ridiculous trials that she must undergo—and there are many—Eleanor maintains unflagging faith in God and his ability to save her. Ultimately her story is a ludicrous parable about how much one's faith can be tested.

It's also a pretty hilarious showcase of some of the wackiest characters and performances imaginable. The standouts here include Conroy, whose Eleanor is like a sunny but pathetically long-suffering June Cleaver; Kelly Stark, who juggles several roles with abandoned goofiness, and Mark St. John, who is amusing as Eleanor's oafishly belligerent druggie son. Another highlight is Rodriguez's apt direction, which turns this staging into a high-camp, sitcom-like whirlwind of absurdity.

"Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You" and "The Nature and Purpose of the Universe," presented by Rude Guerrilla Theater Company at the Empire Theater, 200 N. Broadway, Santa Ana. Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 2:30 p.m. July 26-Aug. 18. $12-15. (714) 547-4688.

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