When a rosary becomes a fetishistic sex toy and a drag queen decides to go green, the audience knows it is in for a evening that pushes buttons and boundaries. When first produced in the late '70s, Manon, Sandra and the Virgin Mary must have been truly shocking. In 2014, post-Sister Act and the ascendancy of drag as a popular art form, we have seen it all and take a perverse pride in our inability to be morally offended (ie: Buddies previous production of Pig) but Manon, Sandra and the Virgin Mary still managed to inspire one outraged walkout - during Sandra's monologue about the wonders of her "cock" - and deeply outraged one Catholic audience member who railed in his own bitter monologue after the lights went up.
Director John Van Burek had warned that it was a "provocative" piece of theatre and he is certainly correct. But he also describes it as "Michel Tremblay at his juiciest" and "very funny," also correct. Manon, Sandra and the Virgin Mary begins with monologues that are indeed hilarious before moving into edgier and edgier material with the highly poetic and comedic lines getting less and less laughter and more hypnotic nervousness. Tremblay's genius is to put an audience on the knife edge between comedy and horror - Manon and Sandra are initially easy to mock but as the audience identifies with them and are moved farther and farther from situation comedy towards psychological dementia, the duo demand to be taken seriously and their quirks become psychosis and tragedy.
Richard McMillan has the showier role as the sex-obsessed drag queen Sandra, and he makes the most of it. With complete mastery of that delicious evil eye twinkle that is a drag queen's most formidable weapon, he revels in just how kinky and scatological he can be. The words roll off his tongue and he pauses, fully aware that the audience is going to convulse with laughter, as he compares his morning erection to a "boy scout out in search of a good deed." When the fantasies get darker and the delusions more intense, it is too late to sit back and mock the silly drag queen - we have been drawn in and are a partner to his darkest desires.
Irene Poole takes Manon on a remarkable trajectory from a frivolous repressed wannabe nun to a full-fledged fetishist with an enviable orgasmic potential. As the prim and proper Manon unravels before our eyes the audience laughs at her, pities her, is quite frightened of her, and finally envies her resurrection. It is a tour de force performance with no fear and layered with subtleties that build to an explosive force.
As brilliant as the actual words are, the structure of Manon, Sandra and the Virgin Mary falls flat at the end. Beginning in a highly stylized naturalism the play climaxes with a reach for profundity that feels tacked on and doesn't resonate as powerfully as it should. The allusions and images that link Manon and Sandra are quite enough to create an evocative relationship, making the literal explanations feel like unnecessary exposition. The catharsis the audience expected, and that these characters deserve, just does not happen: the plot veers into metaphorical territory that pushes us out of the play and turns us back into spectators. As an illustration of the power of faith, whether in God or in sexuality, it works beautifully - the annoying new-agey music turning into church bells is a wonderful touch - but as a theatrical moment, despite the terrifying looming holographic Virgin Mary, it is anti-climactic. However, and most importantly, the journey to get there is deliciously wicked, mesmerizing and should not be missed by the fearless or those who have faith in the power of words.
Manon, Sandra and the Virgin Mary runs Sat, Jan 11 to Sun, Feb 2 at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, 12 Alexander St. buddiesinbadtimes.com