Mocking the Catholic Church has been a popular theatrical practice for eons, with results ranging from biting satires (Christopher Durang's Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You) to warm-and-fuzzy spoofs (Nunsense, Late Nite Catechism). Scot Augustson's Penguins—the late-night series whose first installment opened this past weekend at Annex Theatre—is something new in the world of Catholic mockery. Set in a cartoonish diocese where the nuns and priests engage in a constant war for power, Penguins rejects both pointed Catholic satire and any and all warmth-and-fuzziness by coming on like a hard-boiled crime thriller, with gangster priests, gun-toting nuns, and a bottomless well of depravity.
Of course, in certain hands, gangster priests and gun-toting nuns could be fodder for Nunsense-level cutesiness, but I wasn't kidding about that bottomless well of depravity. Time and again, Penguins shocked its opening-night audience—a late-night Capitol Hill crowd, no less—into hysterics. Playwright Augustson has made a name for himself by creating goofy comedy with a pitch-black heart—the belovedly filthy shadow-puppet troupe Sgt. Rigsby & His Amazing Silhouettes is his doing—but Penguins might be the best forum yet for his talents. As I mentioned, Penguins will be an ongoing series, and the premiere episode shows Augustson's fine understanding of the form, introducing a half-dozen or so stock-ish characters and roping each into a properly melodramatic cliff-hanger in one hour flat.
Helping things immensely is the cast, a uniformly excellent crew directed by Bret Fetzer, who keeps things fast, sharp, and funny. (Let the record show that Fetzer and Augustson were Stranger theater editors in the 1990s.) Also earning individual props: actor Chris Dietz, who cements the show's comic tone with his masterful performance as Father Jones. Speaking to parishioners in a sunny Irish brogue before turning on rivals with a cuss-laden Jersey growl, Dietz's Father Jones is a dark comic marvel. Penguins: Episode One continues through the end of the month; I can't wait to see this winter's episode two.