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Sister's Holy Humor Is Back with Late Nite Catechism

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The setup:

Denise Fennell, as the teaching nun "Sister," starred in Easter Catechism last year in an extended run, and she returns again with fresh material in a one-person show, Late Nite Catechism, to chide us for our sins, offering the joy of laughter and the forgiveness of holy humor.

The execution:

The set by Marc Silvia is simple but well-done, a classroom with blackboard (it gets used), some religious pictures and the inevitable photo of Jack Kennedy, as well as a desk that contains "prizes" for answering questions on religion correctly. And a slight lectern not used but referred to: "They'd raffle this, too, if it wasn't nailed down."

Denise Fennell, clad in a nun's habit with clumpy black shoes she alleges to be steel-tipped, creates such a winning persona that the night we went, she held the audience in the palm of her hand, and as the events unfolded the audience seemed to forget this was a performance, and engaged the Sister in some serious theological discussion. This is an interactive evening, but not an undisciplined one -- you raise your hand if you want to be called upon.

There is a thread of sorts, a discussion of the lives of some saints, the meaning of various Vatican pronouncements, and we are told to ponder during the break for intermission the question of whom Cain and Abel married. But Fennell is adroit at using the audience itself to create humor, in establishing her own themes from audience idiosyncrasies, and converting them into running gags. We learn the religion of many patrons, as well as their marital history. The tone is invariably good-natured, and it's clear from the get-go that the audience has taken to Sister.

This is theoretically a one-person show, but the audience interaction enriches it considerably. Fennell has a quick wit, and the recalcitrant are compelled to respond, the tardy likely to be admonished, and those who exit to use the facilities are reminded to wash their hands. There is an occasional serious moment, as in discussing the plight of retired nuns, who don't receive Social Security benefits as they haven't paid into them, since they themselves were unpaid.

A lot of the audience was older, and nostalgia for simpler times may have added to the pleasure, but there was a sizable segment of young audience members, and, judging by their reactions, this is the perfect "date" event. You don't have to be Catholic, or even religious, to savor the humor, and even an avowed atheist -- yes, Sister did give him a hard time! -- seemed captivated by the experience. Normally reticent myself, I was lured into telling an anecdote about my fourth grade nun, and was awarded a Virgin Mary figurine for knowing the meaning of the Immaculate Conception.

I enjoyed Easter Catechism last year and was pleased to discover that there is no overlapping material -- this has a different script, and the only similarity is the amusing irreverence and the welcome presence of Denise Fennell as Sister. She made us glad to be back in school, even back in detention, so it was no surprise that the audience gave her and the evening a standing ovation. The writing, a frame to be embroidered and brought to life by the actor, is by Maripat Donovan and Vicki Quade, and they have mined their experiences to create a joyful and moving evening of theater.

The verdict:

Denise Fennell is the kind of nun you wish had taught you, and her command of humor and amusing irreverence creates a lighthearted, fun-filled event, certain to melt the iciest heart and bring warmth and laughter to the sternest among us.

Late Nite Catechism continues through March 4 at Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway. For tickets or information, call 713-527-0123 or visit www.stagestheatre.com.

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