American Jewish World - 10/04/02

-Elyse Kaner

Meshuggah-Nuns! takes Fiddler on an ecumenical sea cruise

The zany Sisters of Hoboken – sort of like the Marx Brothers garbed in Catholic nun habits – are knee-deep in shtick once again. This time there’s a Yiddish twist on the shenanigans that are a staple of the popular Nunsense plays. Dan Goggin’s Meshuggah-Nuns! – in its world premiere at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres --- is a combination of Jewish inflection and Catholic confession, a mix of musical madcap, sprinkled with saintly sight gags and ubiquitous jokes. Here’s the meisse (story): The USS Golden Delicious, a “Faiths of all Nations” world cruise, hits choppy seas that send the cast of the ship’s production of Fiddler on the Roof running for the barf bags. Tevye, played by the Jewish character Howard Liszt (short for Lishinsky), is the only cast member well enough to perform. Well a one-man show works great for Jackie Mason, but leaves Anatevka a few Shteil dwellers short. Howard teams with Reverend Mother, Sister Robert Anne, Sister Hubert, and Sister Amnesia, the latter receiving her name when a crucifix fell on her head. Together the Jewish actor and four nuns – hams, so to speak, in their own right – miraculously step up to the challenge of joining Jewish and Catholic forces to put on a show. But what they wonder do Jews and Catholics have in common? Guilt! What else? The song “Contrition” follows – a spewing of shared cross-cultural transgression; I ate meat on Friday, and I ate a ham sandwich, for example. The whole play calls attention to the commonality of both religious groups, says Dan Goggin, writer and composer of the Nunsense series. Goggin, a Roman-Catholic, was directing Nunsense production in Florida some time ago, when on of the producers suggested writing a play with a Jewish character. “People used to tease me: When are you going to write Rabbisense?” he said. Another friend suggested the Fiddler-cruise ship idea, and the rest is history. One of Goggin’s favorite parts of the show is hearing the audience laugh during the “Duty Free Shopping” song, which features the best bargains on the high seas. The Reverend Mother and Howard kvell over some of their favorites – Blue Nun and Frangelica, cheeses of Nazareth and G-d is Grate and Gouda cheeses – all Kosher and Blessed by the ship’s rabbi. Among the other songs in the show are “Say it in Yiddish.” “If I were a Catholic” and “Matzo Man.”

As the play unfolds, the characters discover more about their cultures’ similarities. In a poignant scene, Howard shares a tender moment with Sister Robert Anne, the Brooklyn born, penitent reform school alumnus, who served time for hot-wiring a “cop car.” Howard reflects on his wife, Sarah, the love of his life. At the same time, Robert Anne muses on the one she loves. “Robert Anne, are you seeing someone on the side?” Howard asks in disbelief. “Yah. The lord. But my guy? He never writes; He never calls.” answers Sister with a Yiddish nuance. Goggin, who grew up in Alma, Mich., attended Manhattan School of Music in New York City. In the 1960s he sang backup in the Broadway play Luther, starring Albert Finney. He next toured with a folk group for several years, and in 1983, he created the original Nunsense, which burgeoned into an international phenomenon. To date, more than 5,000 performances of the Nunsense musicals have grossed more than $300 million worldwide. Meshuggah-Nuns! is the fifth in the series of whacky sisterly shows. Marty Ruben of Minneapolis, who defines acting as “serious fun.” plays the haimish (warm and family-like) Howard Liszt role. Ruben was a natural choice for the cultural counterpart to the nuns. Goggin wanted someone who understood Yiddish and was familiar with the Borscht Belt to play the Howard role. Ruben, originally from Queens NY., who grew up loving comedians Shelly Berman and Woody Allen, fit the bill. “It’s fun. It’s about laughing.,” says Ruben. He borrows a line form the play: “When you’re laughing, you’re not rich, you’re not poor. You’re not hurting, you’re not hating. You’re just laughing.” Meshuggah-Nuns! is Ruben’s 20th show at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres, where some may remember his role as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. He has acted at several twin Cities theatres, including the Guthrie, Children’s theatre Company, Old Log and the Great American History Theatre. Ruben also does television and radio voice-overs. Goggin consider it a sign from G-d that he was supposed to write Meshuggah-Nuns! is already scheduled to open in five cities. Said Goggin, who directed the Chanhassen world premiere, “I always tell people, you don’t have to Catholic, you don’t have to be Jewish, and if you’ve never seen a Nunsense, you’ll still be able to laugh.”