Having attended Catholic Schools through high school, I am always a little wary when someone asks me if I would like to go see a musical about a nun.
It is the story of the founding of Montreal, centered on the experiences of and narrated by Marguerite Bourgeoys, Canada’s first female saint. Given that Canada celebrates its 150th anniversary this year (specifically, Canada Day was July 1st, the opening night of Second to Nun), and Montreal is turning a ripe ol’ age of 375, what we have here is a very timely show.
Second to Nun is not just timely with regard to Canada, however. Marguerite Bourgeoys was a little bit ahead of her time. At the time that she came to New France, women who wanted to have a place in the church were required to join a cloister, living out their existence behind walls. This option was not open to women who could not afford it, so poor women were excluded from life in the church. Marguerite wanted to live an uncloistered life, and serve her God at the same time. She was given permission to do her uncloistered experiment in New France. In our new world full of constant talk of walls, with debates on women’s rights that should have been settled half a century ago coming back around, this particular refrain is especially relevant.
Throughout the show, Marguerite finds the beauty and majesty of her new world, and also the dangers of her unsettled colony, ranging from mosquitoes to fights with the natives, all of which are told here in song. Second to Nun is a one woman show, so although we are introduced to famous French-Canadians like Maisonneuve (founder of Montreal), Jeanne Mance (the money), the Filles du Roi (women who were sponsored by the King to come to New France to find husbands, and put into Marguerite’s care), and Pierre le Ber (a painter), they all come to life through Marguerite’s memories of them, transported to us in song. Her songs tell the story of her journey; we watch as she remembers her first perilous trip across the sea, her battles with mosquitoes, plague, natives (a particularly interesting song and scene), and also their triumphs, the weddings, and their pride in their new land and accomplishments.
Anton Dudley, who grew up in Montreal, both wrote and directed Second to Nun. He has put together a cohesive, interesting story, and you can really feel the love that he and Michael Cooper, who wrote the music, have for Marguerite and her story. Cooper’s music is absolutely beautiful, and the variety of styles that he chose really expands the story telling for our leading lady, Molly Pope, who plays Marguerite.
Pope is the perfect choice to play Marguerite, and she absolutely nailed it with every song, processing a lifetime’s worth of emotions in a little over an hour, and making it look easy to those of us in the audience. Marguerite is a serious character with a good sense of humor (expect at least one tasteful beaver joke), an eternal optimist, even in the darkest of times, and Pope plays the part with ease. Her voice is amazing, and complimenting her beautifully is Bart Kuebler on the piano and Peter Greydanus on the cello. Kuebler, who is also the musical director of this show, and the Artistic Director of ZADT, is an absolute wiz on the piano, and Greydanus is given a particular solo spot to shine which, (keeping away from spoilers) was quite moving, and a credit both to his playing and to Cooper’s composing.
The current space for ZADT is a small black box, and there isn’t a whole lot of room for technical elements. Properties design is credited to Sam Flint, the main focus of which was a beautiful pop-up book that served essentially as a tiny stand-in for scenery. I struggle to find words for how much this book impressed; on the outside it appears to be an old leather-bound book, and inside he has handcrafted the ship, their home, and their church, which opens and builds throughout the show like a pop-up book should. I have seen many things that Flint has built, and this is one of his best works so far.
Otherwise there are some water cups and a candle in the Virgin Mary’s traditional blue, and a few stools for use in storytelling, a truly minimalist design that serves the story well. With so few scenic elements, the majority of the locations fall on Jeff Brangan, the lighting designer, who does not disappoint. His design is functionally perfect, getting across everything it needs to in a subtle way, without detracting from the action. As is expected from a professional production, all cue executions were on point, clean, tidy, and prompt, which is a testimony to the skill of Erin Hollis, the Production Stage Manager. Pope was amplified to properly mix her with the piano and cello, which could have easily overtaken that small space if allowed. Although a sound designer or engineer was not mentioned, it was excellently done. Nothing is too loud or too soft, and with properly setup up and maintained equipment, there was none of the hissing, popping, or cracking that other area theaters (even professional ones) are becoming infamous for giving to us.
Second to Nun is a timely, interesting, fun performance. Personally, I didn’t go into it knowing altogether too much about Canada’s history (it isn’t exactly something they extensively cover in the USA’s school system, even in the northern states), and you don’t need to know any of that to enjoy the story. From the young, innocent song about how to protect yourself from mosquitoes, to the later heart-wrenching ballads about the first born of the filles du roi, and the final anthem announcing Marguerite’s pride in her new home, Pope gives us a night to remember. No matter what your religion may or may not be, a dream of a life without walls is a dream that we should all be able to get behind. Head out to ZADT to see just how long ago that dream started.
Second To Nun runs thru 8/5 at Zeiders American Dream Theater in VA Beach. Thurs, Fri, & Sat @ 7:00pm. Tix $23.00. Click here to get ’em while they’re hot.