Addison — Two sweet, precious performers (pianist and musical director Mark Mullino and vocalist Sarah Elizabeth Price) appear, decked out in Christmas attire including antlers and begin to sing Christmas songs. They work so hard at convincing the audience to sing along with them on “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Let It Snow,” and “Silent Night.” The gentleman two seats to the right looks at his watch and grumbles to his wife why couldn’t he have just stayed home and listened to the radio, when suddenly a voice booms from the back of the house, telling the singers to knock it off and stop singing. Enough already with the Christmas carols.
The gentleman, surprised and relieved, breaks out into a hearty guffaw and from that moment forward the Sister has him in the palms of her hands. She stomps down the stairs somewhat fussily and it becomes clear to all that Sister’s Christmas Catechism: The Mystery of the Magi’s Gold by Maripat Donovan with Marc Silvia and Jane Morris, has begun.
Nonie Newton-Riley (Breen) stars in WaterTower Theatre’s production of this popular show that is one of the outgrowths of the Late Night Catechism series of shows originated over 20 years ago by Maripat Donovan and Vicki Quade. Newton-Riley has played this role for 15 years. Her training with Second City has prepared her for a comedic piece such as this one. This show is completely reliant upon her skills at improvisation and ability to bring integrate the audience into the show. Essentially, the Sister has fun teasing Catholics (and a Lutheran or two) without alienating anyone in the audience. Easier said than done, but Newton-Riley accomplishes it.
The first half of the show consists of the Sister establishing or rather enforcing the rules of the catechism. Her classroom space is the Canterbury Family Theatre. Sister admonishes students (audience members) to stop chewing gum, and to pay attention. She calls our attention to certain items on her desk such as a Pope bobblehead doll. The lesson for this session seeks the answer to one specific question – what happened to the gold brought by the Magi to the baby Jesus? She reasons that the frankincense and myrrh were used, but given that the baby and his parents were sleeping in a barn rather than a nice inn, clearly they didn’t have the gold. The Sister’s theory is that someone stole the gold, but whom?
The second half of the show seeks to solve that mystery through staging a reenactment of the nativity, casting audience members in the principle roles. Costume pieces and props are pulled from shopping bags that line the set. The Sunday matinee audience cast members included a tipsy wine-drinking Mary and a Joseph that manages a winery. Newton-Riley hilariously interjects pop culture references where least expected, almost as asides. This is a very funny show.
As is the case with the other Late Night Catechism pieces, Sister’s Christmas Catechism exists not solely for entertainment, but also as a fundraiser for retired nuns that are without resources.