Late Nite Catechism
To paraphrase the old advertisement for Levy's Jewish Rye Bread, you don't have to be Catholic to love Late Nite Catechism, the "one-sister" show running at Stages Repertory Theatre, though it probably wouldn't hurt. No matter your denomination, there are plenty of laughs, even if you're one of those unfortunate "publics" whose parents obviously didn't care about them and sent them for a sub-standard education at a nonreligious school. Well, that's what Sister (Amanda Hebert) tells us, and what she says during her evening class is Holy Writ. Discard her wisdom at your peril.
Under her 20 pounds of black gabardine, Sister commands her after-school catechism class with smooth, sly humor and a martinet's tough-love discipline, teaching us, her unruly pupils, the finer arts of Catholic theology. Never fear, heathens, this is one sharp Sister. As she bribes us with glow-in-the-dark rosaries, laminated holy cards (baseball trading cards for the faithful), plastic statues of (once-Saint) Christopher and a get-out-of-Hell credit card, we learn about which saints should be eliminated from the 75,000 on the Vatican's official list, and the exact meaning of the Stigmata, and who in fact populated the earth after Adam and Eve. At world's beginning, the original dysfunctional family had two sons, she tells us. Abel, the most eligible bachelor, was bludgeoned to death by his brother, so who in their right mind would want to marry the murderous sibling with the "big C" (the mark of Cain) branded on his forehead? Sister has a comic point, perhaps not too reasonable, but understandable and food for thought during the intermission.
It's a free-form sort of show, with classroom participation leading Sister to deliver delightful asides while gently mocking her charges. "Sit up straight," she barks to a young man who has crossed his legs. Sheepishly, he complies, and everyone else in the audience sits a little straighter, too.
But what exactly is this show, written by Vicki Quade and Maripat Donovan (the original Sister)? It falls into that religious exposé genre that broadly includes Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You, Nunsense, Doubt, even the blistering The Deputy. Of course, Catechism doesn't possess Ignatius's acid, Nunsense's silliness, Doubt's moral ambiguity or The Deputy's scathing denunciation. This comedy is, in fact, a virtual catechism class, albeit a humorous one.
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But as a play, there's no bite and not all that much to chew on. All the standard Catholic upbringing stereotypes are front and center, gently mocked, yet treated with a nostalgic wistfulness for the "good old days" when girls were good and boys were bad, and faith was respected and accepted as the natural order. As a piece of education, it works, but it falls short as theater, being much too long, meandering and, in Act II, repetitive.
The set design by Kirk Markley and Jodi Bobrovsky — a facsimile of an elementary schoolroom with its kids' drawings of the Ten Commandments and essays on patriotism, punctuated by paper-plate artwork using cotton balls and macaroni — is sublimely right, setting the mood that Quade and Donovan miss.
But Hebert, a former stand-up comedienne who's been performing Sister since 1999, has us right in the palm of her ruler-clad hand. "Who got whacked in school?" she gleefully asks with a whiff of Irish brogue, and we're off with a few audience reminiscences about bruised knuckles and egos, which eventually leads to a discussion about one of the eternal themes from Catholic doctrine: "Oh, the Jews invented guilt," Sister says, "but Catholics perfected it." Hebert positively twinkles when she lets loose a politically incorrect zinger like, "Nuns are like gangs," or "How can you tell a troubled teenager? They're wearing denim." A large woman, she wears her habit like a muumuu, while her wimple-encased face radiates warmth and trust. You wish that she had been your teacher. She would have been one of your favorites.
The one abiding truth we take away with us at play's end: We should immediately remove all children from the public school system and plop them into private Catholic school, where gum chewing is anathema, uniforms are required and authority demands respect.
To use one of Sister's favorite slogans, you should "offer it up" for this night class. Though it's not much of a play, when the laughter's over, you just might realize you've learned something. And sit up straight!
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