Story: Sister, the scourge of parochial schools everywhere, is back. She welcomes us to her classroom, where “J.M.J.” (as in Jesus, Mary and Joseph) in cursive is positioned strategically at the top of the nun and teacher’s chalkboard.
She also has a bulletin board with photos of Presidents Washington, Lincoln, Kennedy and Trump as well as a picture of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The photo of the 45th president juxtaposes oddly with the others, as many of us recall long-ago childhood. Sister also has a table full of Christmas presents which she says she’ll be awarding to “students” who answer questions correctly.
You’d better know how to answer, though, as much as what. You must speak in complete sentences and begin your comment with “Sister,” as in “Sister, my name is (full name only), and Santa Claus is based on St. Nicholas.” Your reward might be a holy card or a paddleball, depending upon Sister’s whim.
Since it’s the holiday season, Sister’s assistant Paul at the piano leads the class in several rousing Christmas songs prior to Sister’s arrival. When she hears us singing Jingle Bells, though, she advises us to change the lyrics to “Oh, what fun it is to ride with baby Jesus in the sleigh,” since it’s his birthday, after all.
If you’re not on your best behavior, you could be saddled with a demerit or even put in the corner, facing the wall if you’re especially insubordinate. Sister then tells us that we’re going to re-enact the Nativity (the birth of Jesus) and in doing so solve the millenia-old mystery of “what ever happened to the Magi’s gold?”
Sister questions why the Magi were called the three wise men when they announced the purpose of their arrival to Herod, arguably the cruelest king of all time. She speculates that while Mary found quick use for frankincense and myrrh (“They’re in a barn, after all”), what happened to the third gift of gold? Mary and Joseph could have rented a suite at the nearby inn with that cash.
So, Sister borrows a page from the popular cable series, Forensic Files, to trace the steps of what might have happened on that first Christmas night. With the help of volunteer ‘students’ costumed as Mary, Joseph, animals, shepherds, wise men and even The Little Drummer Boy, she searches for clues to this mystery.
Highlights: Sister’s Christmas Catechism is a rollicking sequel of sorts to Late Nite Catechism, the comedy which draws upon indelible memories of Roman Catholics who were taught by nuns in their grade school (and, for some, high school) years. Mary F. Zentmyer is priceless in the role of Sister in the current hilarious production at the Playhouse at Westport Plaza.
Other Info: Zentmyer’s bio in the program notes that she was raised Catholic herself and taught by the School Sisters of St. Francis. The costume designer for this version has Sister dressed in the black tunic, white scapular and black veil (I think those terms are correct) worn by the Ursuline nuns of my own grade school experience, not the modern garb favored by many nuns today.
That’s appropriate, though, because while the setting may have an occasional modern touch such as that Trump photo, it feels more like 1962, thanks to Zentmyer’s uncannily precise depiction of Sister. Zentmyer also possesses quite an amazing memory, because she remembered the names of virtually all of the people she called upon from the audience on opening night.
She makes the most of that recall in shaping comic images of various ‘students,’ but it's all in good-natured fun. After all, what Catholic wasn’t humiliated in class once or twice in childhood? Zentmyer’s gift for improvisation is evident throughout the two-act performance, which features a fundamental, barebones script which is liberally padded with Zentmyer’s knack for comedy on the fly.
Zentmyer is one of six actresses who portray Sister from the Chicago-based company Nuns 4 Fun Entertainment, Inc., which stages productions of the original Late Nite Catechism by Vicki Quade and Maripat Donovan from 1993 as well as Christmas Catechism. Zentmyer has been performing as Sister since 1996, relying upon both her childhood recollections of her Catholic education as well as her own innate comic timing.
While Christmas Catechism draws heavily upon Roman Catholic religious and educational experiences, its humor is universal and apt to appeal to adults of all stripes and variations. After all, it isn’t easy being a kid, as Sister’s second act ably demonstrates when audience members are costumed in ridiculously funny outfits to re-enact that first Christmas night.
With Thanksgiving over, the holiday season is in full throttle. Ample stores are available for the requisite shopping, but take time to treat yourself if you can to the mirth of Sister’s Christmas Catechism. There’s a candy cane in it for you, too.
Play: Sister’s Christmas Catechism: The Mystery of the Magi’s Gold
Company: Emery Entertainment
Venue: The Playhouse at Westport Plaza
Dates: November 28 through December 3
Tickets: $50; contact metrotix.com or 534-1111
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photo courtesy of Neil Reynolds