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THEATER REVIEW: "Sister's Christmas Catechism"

O come, all ye faithful



Christmas items started infiltrating stores before Halloween. Holiday music is already on the radio. Thanksgiving is next week. I know, I know; it's depraved. The holidays are upon us, and it's safe to say that none of us is ready for the mad rush that accompanies the end of another year.

But ready or not, here it comes, and Geva is perhaps a little ahead of the pack with one of its holiday offerings, the Nextstage comedy "Sister's Christmas Catechism." It's a small, cute show that is smart counter-programming to the main-stage family spectacle "A Christmas Carol," which begins in a few weeks. It's also refreshing in the way that it deals with the tension between Christmas's religious origins and its modern consumerist-dominated nature, and manages to have a bit of fun with Catholic dogma while still taking it seriously.

"Christmas Catechism" comes from the same team that did "Late Night Catechism," which had a popular run on the Nextstage last year. Reprising the one and only role in the show is Colleen Moore as Sister, an alternately wistful and brusque Catholic nun leading a catechism class (you're the students), this one specifically focused on Christmas. Moore is so convincing in the role that I honestly thought she might have been a nun (apparently not, but she did come up through Catholic schools). Her low, affect-free voice underscores her no-nonsense presence, although she lights up whenever she talks about her own Christmas memories, mentions the baby Jesus, or one of her students gets an answer right.

The writing in "Christmas Catechism" frankly isn't all that strong. The material is fine, but hardly laugh-out-loud funny. It's Moore's delivery that makes the show work, and especially the way she relates to the audience. Typically I cannot stand shows that require audience participation. "Catechism" practically requires that every person in the theater get involved with multiple question-and-answer sessions (the lucky winners get "quality prizes"), sing-alongs, and at least one pop quiz on spelling. The second half of the show involves nearly a dozen audience members being brought up on stage to participate in a living nativity scene, and the casting process — and costuming transformations — had the audience howling at the performance I attended.

Again, much of the credit for that goes to Moore and the way she commands the audience, and her off-the-cuff comments. Even before the nativity section, she would go out into the audience to confront poorly behaved patrons. At one point she talked to a young woman who had been the May crown queen, and at the end rebuked her for talking while chomping on a piece of gum the whole time. One particularly noisy audience member got branded a troublemaker, and later was drafted into the nativity scene. And another made the cardinal sin of leaving his cell-phone ringer on during the play, and Sister confiscated it. (Good on her; maybe we need nuns patrolling every theater audience.) The way Moore dealt with all the distractions was honestly funnier than most of the show's actual material.

What is commendable about the play itself is the way that it handles religion and comedy. Religion — just about any religion — is filled with so many ridiculous concepts and stories that it's easy to get laughs by cynically poking fun. You get the feeling that the folks that wrote "Christmas Catechism" are believers, or at least people who genuinely respect those who have faith. Only one of the jokes in the show even came close to being insulting, and that was more inferred than expressed. (For the record, it was the story about how Joseph ended up with Mary, which involved a bunch of old guys touching their staffs until something white shot out of the end.) Whether you're religious or not, you have to appreciate people's views being treated with dignity, especially when it's so easy to rip them down.

A final note: make sure to get to the theater early. The Friday show I attended was supposed to start at 7 p.m., but the doors to the theater were closed minutes earlier. I had to wait, along with several other people, until the opening choir number was finished before I was allowed to enter, and Sister threw a little school-marm shade at the "latecomers." (Sorry, we weren't late; you were early.) Even more people came in after that and got even worse ribbing. So unless you want to get sassed at a Christmas show, make sure to take your seats a good 15 minutes before show time.

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