Sister’s Christmas Catechism (The Mystery of the Magi’s Gold) is part of the “Late Night Catechism” series created by Vicki Quade and Maripat Donovan. There are in fact seven sequels to the original, world-renowned solo comedy. They were collectively penned by Quade and/or Donovan. Maripat Donovan’s portrayal of Sister is of course unsurpassable. Of course, it helps that she created the role and was deeply involved in the development of the character long before donning the nun’s habit and rosary. It follows that any interpretations of the material by other solo performers run the risk of being derivative of the original. We applaud those performers who take the chance so that the “Late Night Catechism” series can be brought to regional venues such as the Phoenix Theatre Company.
The Phoenix Theatre Company’s production of Christmas Catechism is presented at the Judith Hardes Theatre. Hardes is a black box theatre that holds just over a hundred patrons. As the show is an example of participatory theater, Hardes is the perfect size for this interactive performance. Sister (played by Jodie Weiss) is a fictitious Catholic nun who is conducting a late night catechism class. Initially, she comes off as blunt, abrasive, pious, and occasionally prudish. These characteristics are typical of the prototypical “strict Catholic school nun”, but they are offset by outbursts of a devilish sense of humor that is at once both unsettling and hilarious.
Sister’s students are the members of the audience. As such, the stage serves as the front of the classroom, which needs only a podium and a blackboard to pull off the illusion. In the case of Christmas Catechism, there are additional adornments of holiday decorations and Baby Jesus-themed statuary. These all serve as further props for Sister’s agenda, which is primarily the retelling of the Nativity — with some obvious emphasis on the more colorful and fantastical aspects of the story.
Being a black box theatre with a whole section of moveable seating, the front half of it is set up in dinner theater style, with tables for two to four, and then several rows in the rear. This allows a greater degree of interaction than if the entire room were set up auditorium style with aisles to the left and right of center. It makes for an interesting dynamic, as at least half of the audience becomes “vulnerable” to the Sister’s fierce wooden ruler and cheesy trivia prizes.
The format mixes a series of planned pieces (the syllabus, if you will) that emulate a parody of a catechism class with off-the-cuff riffs by our hostess/instructor. This format relies heavily on the spontaneous comic timing of Sister, as personified by Ms Weiss, and the willingness of the audience to become directly involved in the proceedings. To put a further twist on things, Christmas Catechism’s second act starts with a reenactment of the Nativity by cooperative audience members, followed by a “CSI: Bethlehem” turn as we uncover the mystery of the disappearance of the Magi’s gold. Sister becomes a Scripture-quoting gumshoe who uses her own brand of scientific method to solve that great mystery.
Kudos to veteran performer Jodie Weiss for taking on this very challenging role. It requires a great deal of concentration while maintaining a very loose hold on the reins of the scripted portion of the show. Every moment is an opportunity to insert spontaneous humor, especially when it comes at the expense of an unsuspecting audience member who has come under the watchful eye of this strict Catholic nun. An interactive show can be fun and exciting or it could fall flat, depending on the level of support given by the audience. Each night’s audience presents a new, unknown challenge, not unlike that experienced by stand-up comics nightly.
Like a good wine, a participatory show should get better as it ages. This is not to imply that Christmas Catechism’s premiere was less than stellar, but rather that the nature of an improv bit is that it gets smoother, sharper, and funnier with repetition. The same would apply to the “friends-and-family” pre-showings that commonly precede Friday opening nights. Although in our experience, those sneak previews at the Phoenix Theatre Company are always tight, energetic, and professional.
The Hormel Theatre continues to undergo a major renovation for the balance of the 2023/2024 season. It will be expanded from 250 seats to 500 seats and will receive technical improvements. In the meantime, the Hardes Theatre will host the smaller shows, such as The Truth About Winnie Ruth Judd, What The Constitution Means to Me, and Fully Committed. Each of these excellent but scaled-down productions will make good use of the intimate atmosphere of the Judith Hardes Theatre.