Denise Fennell as Sister in Sister’s Christmas Catechism: The Mystery of the Magi’s Gold. Photo by Claire Logue.
Sister’s Christmas Catechism: The Mystery of the Magi’s Gold
Written by: Maripat Donovan with Jane Morris & Marc Silva
Directed by: Marc Silva
Company: Stages Repertory Theatre
Run Dates: Nov 12 – Dec 28, 2014
The holiday theater season is a cringe-worthy time for a critic. Or at least it is for this critic. Gone are the hard-hitting narratives, the risk-taking new works and the musicals that actually have something intriguing to say. Instead come mid-November, our stages are full of every incarnation of Christmas Carol known to mankind, musical reviews full of cheery standards and family friendly shows that try desperately to amuse the adults as well as the kiddies. It’s a time of year I could happily stay home and read a good book.
So, you can imagine my level of enthusiasm heading to the theater to see Stage’s annual production of their Sister’s Christmas Catechism holiday show. This year with the sub-title, The Mystery of the Magi’s Gold, the show is described as an interactive, one woman mystery extravaganza starring a wise cracking tough nun. Hilarity will ensue, I was assured. Ugh was my thought.
But about 10 minutes into the show, something surprising happened. My ‘ugh’ turned to ‘aha’ as I realized that this was no low hanging fruit, overly obvious and dumbed down holiday comedy. And after 10 minutes when I still found myself regularly laughing at what was being created on stage, I settled in and delighted in the fun of it all.
A hybrid stand-up comedy/improvisational show, Sister’s Christmas Catechism, written by Maripat Donovan with Jane Morris & Marc Silva, has a script and story of sorts, but is mostly dependent on the audience and the quick on her feet talent of the star to pull the whole thing off. Set on a stage dressed to look like the inside of a catholic schoolroom at Christmas time, with colourful photos of Jesus, posters that read “Smile, God Loves You” and the requisite tree and nativity scene, the show introduces us to Sister (the remarkably funny and talented Denise Fennell). Sounding more Jewish or at least from the Bronx with a familiar ‘Nu Yawk’ no nonsense accent, Sister, dressed in full traditional habit shows us early that there will be no fourth wall in this show.
Speaking directly to the audience as her ‘classroom’ for the evening, we’re told that we will have the promised Christmas party at some point, but first we need to do some Catholic learning – hence the catechism in the show’s title. The lesson takes the form of a series of questions lobbed by Sister at the audience where under Fennell’s quick tongue, excellent timing and right balance between acerbic and deprecating, religion of all stripes are gently but wryly mocked. None more so however than Catholicism. From jabs at the nun as school disciplinarian, “the ruler is an effective teacher”, to deciding whether to let a Lutheran or Methodist audience member answer a question, “Methodist, you are closer to Catholic, you answer” to urging an audience member to get the details of the Blessed Mother’s life right, “C’mon we’re trying to show off Mary to the Jews in the audience, pay attention!”, Sister spares little in her send up of Catholic life and schooling.
This is not to say that there isn’t learning in the show. Donovan et al cleverly disguise teaching us everything from the financial status of Mary’s parents (“so wealthy that they would be driving Lamborghinis today”) to how many orders of nuns there are in the world (over 12 thousand who often don’t agree on things and operate like “gangs”) to the Magi and whatever became of the gold offered to the Baby Jesus (dissected in CSI-like fashion in a wonderfully hilarious audience participation nativity scene). The lessons may be based in Catholic doctrine but the laughs they elicit are universal.
I didn’t get one of the prizes Sister gives out to audience members for correct answers (Happy Birthday Baby Jesus stickers, bookmarks, balloons etc.) My takeaway gift was far greater. Finally, a zany Christmas show with brains and heart that managed to beat the Scrooge out of this critic and leave me happily humming the ‘revamped for maximum religious impact’ carols Sister forced us to sing. Jingle Bells indeed.
For Catholics – Fun may be poked but it’s with enough reverence that offence is off the table. The night I saw the performance a large group of Catholics, including several priests, had bussed in to see the show. It wouldn’t be stretching it to say that they were laughing the loudest. SEE IT
For non-Catholics of every stripe – Sister starts the show by saying all are welcome and the structure and comedy ensure this is the case. Yes the jokes are mostly at the expense of Catholic doctrine but at no time is this exclusionary comedy. You will laugh with, at and in spite of the goings on and even learn a thing or two along the way. SEE IT
For the occasional theater goer – True there is no real plot or story here, but who cares when such a talented performer keeps you on your toes and laughing for two acts? Fennell is utterly irresistible as a wise-cracking nun who is as quick to tell stories of her sister eating a nativity Baby Jesus as she is in disciplining audience members for chewing gum. SEE IT
For theater junkies – Audience participation and interactive theater of this sort can be terribly indulgent and messy. Thanks to very clever writing, a tour de force performance by Fennell and Silva’s deft direction that never allows the audience the upper hand, this is a show worthy of your respect. Add in many unexpected and beautifully executed comedic moments and this is also show worthy of your laughter. SEE IT