The Setup: When a show is semi-scripted, with ample audience participation, a lot depends on the stage presence of the m/c, and Easter Catechism is fortunate indeed to have Denise Fennell filling that role. I had the experience for six years of being taught by nuns in primary school, so the territory is familiar, but my memory is that none were quite so ingratiating and humorous as the one holding centerstage in this production. She ranges from educator to drill-sergeant - chew gum at your own risk - and yes, you stand when speaking to her, and only after first raising your hand.
The Execution: On the night I attended, the audience was as good-natured as she was, and contributed significantly to the general fun. It was Fennell's debut in the role, formerly played by the playwright Maripat Donovan, but no one would have known had she not mentioned it at the end of a roller-coaster evening.
Fennell has great comic timing, is a master of the slow take and the sidelong glance, and carries the audience with her wherever she goes. And the traveling is broad, from the burning question of whether bunnies go to heaven, to an explanation of the true meaning of Easter. My apprehension rose as we neared this point, for explicating the death and resurrection of Christ in an evening of comedy is like walking a highwire across the Grand Canyon, but Fennell traversed even this pitfall successfully.
And I came to believe in her as a nun, not an actress, as she tactfully mentioned her low wages and her status versus priests - and of course her shoes sealed the deal. The second half of the evening entails parodies of TV game shows, as semi-religious queries are posed - is this a mortal or a venial sin? A lot here depends on the audience members ordered (one dare not disobey) to the stage.
The Verdict: Perhaps the writing in some of the scripted sections might be tightened, but one likes Fennell so immediately and so thoroughly that the schoolroom format and audience give-and-take does yeoman service.
Through April 24, Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0123.
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