There is a lot of mystery surrounding the birth of Jesus. Even for the faithful, many questions remain unanswered. They have been debated for centuries, and they have defined and redefined people’s spiritual lives. Left relatively uninvestigated: What happened to the Magi’s gold – one of the gifts they gave the child upon his arrival?
This mystery will finally be investigated at the Long Wharf Theater from December 8-20, until Sisters’ Christmas Catechism: The Mystery of the Magi’s Gold, a one-man show featuring Nonie Newton Riley. In this piece, however, the gold is more of the comedic variety.
“It’s like Bethlehem: ITUC with laughter,” Riley said of the play, a half-scripted, half-improvised production that engages the audience using the format of the Catholic Catechism – meaning a series of questions and answers – in a classroom to get to the bottom of where that gold went.
“Catholics probably get it on a deep, visceral level,” Riley said, “but it pleases you, no matter who you are. It’s still comedy.
Christmas Catechism is one of eight catechism pieces from Late Catechismwritten by Chicago comedians Vicki Quade and Maripat Donovan, which began its run in Chicago in 1993 and is still going strong today (Christmas is written by Donovan with Marc Silvia and Jane Morris). Riley herself has been performing the Sunday School plays since 2001 and has just completed a tour of Florida where she performed a different show every night for four nights.
“It was kind of a personal best for me,” she said.
Looking at Riley’s resume, that’s saying something. His theatrical work has included stints in Second City and other improv groups. She worked as a writer on Hidden camera and won an Emmy for writing and starring in a PBS production of Oh, Art!
She credits her upbringing, however, with helping her develop her comedy chops in the first place. “When you’re raised in an Irish-Catholic family, an Italian-Catholic family, there’s so much humor in those traditions,” she said.
She grew up in an Irish-Catholic family of nine children and went to Catholic school. Her great-aunt was a nun. Another relative was a priest. “And two of my cousins were expelled from the seminary,” she added. Today the fact that she plays a nun and is friends with nuns is “great fun for my family.
On some level, Riley said, Christmas Catechism is “like any classroom. You ask questions and wait for someone to raise their hand and give you an answer. This is how the ball begins to roll, as the play explores its central mystery of what happened to the gold – and has ten spectators dress up as part of the Nativity.
Riley has found that the play’s classroom setting brings out the best comedy in the people who participate in it. “It doesn’t feel like a solo show,” she said. Audience members constantly delight her with their answers to her questions and the resulting repartee. “After all these years, she said, “people can still surprise me.
Members of the class she considers misbehaving, she said with a laugh, “either they have to pay me a dollar or they have to sit in the Punish Me chair. And people like to see other people get in trouble. They adore him. And they’re so glad it’s not them. I’ve seen octogenarians turn into ten-year-olds – they’d throw the other person under the bus in the blink of an eye.
The catechism even plays the job on the clergy. “I did this show at Notre-Dame, which was packed with priests and nuns. I did this show for the bishops. I did this show for the cardinals. So right away we break the fourth wall going in,” Riley said.
At a performance in Waco, Texas, a few clergy were in the front row and a priest had a stack of books in his lap. Riley asked if he planned to test her. He said yes.
“Oh, you have to use a book,” Riley said. “Shame.”
Christmas Catechism, like all of Quade and Donovan’s catechism pieces, focuses on the idea that “religion doesn’t have to be serious business,” Riley said. “This is OKAY to have fun with. There’s so much culture swirling around the Catholic Church, and for those who weren’t raised Catholic, there’s a curiosity about it.
So, in the room itself, “it’s not about the actor. It’s about the person – let them shine,” Riley said. “If you can do that, it’s a lot more fun. You can get away from all the politics and bad news in the world. It’s a few hours of laughs.
Sisters’ Christmas Catechism: The Mystery of the Magi’s Gold takes place at the Long Wharf Theatre, 222 Sargeant Dr., from December 8 to December 20. Tickets are $35. For more information, click here.