Denise Fennell in ‘The Sisters’ Christmas Catechism: The Mystery of the Magi’s Gold’ in Stages
Photo: Claire Logue
In “Sister’s Christmas Catechism: The Mystery of the Gold of the Magi”, the latest incarnation of the “Sister’s Catechism” series, playwright Maripat Donovan collaborates with Marc Silvia and Jane Morris to create a Christmas play full of laughter and participation public. In her 10th year in this series at Stages, Denise Fennell returns as Sister, a daring and bossy nun who can teach Catholic doctrine while playing a joke.
This (almost) one-woman show requires a lot of the lead role, and Fennell is awe-inspiring to watch as she interacts with audiences. It’s a bouncy act, and like a good tennis match, you can’t help but wonder where the ball is going to land as she and the audience joke back and forth.
It’s harder than it looks, requiring impeccable comedic timing, improvisational skills, and an ability to stay in character while orchestrating and maintaining a high degree of audience participation.
The show begins with a trippy chant of traditional Christmas carols, interrupted by the abrupt entry of Sister opposing “Jingle Bells” because there is “nothing to do with Jesus” in it. From that moment on, the humor is irresistible.
A change from some of the other shows in the Sister series is that this one is in a round theater setup. You are still in Sister’s class but you are not looking directly at her. Since Fennell can really move around either side of the room, it allows him to easily engage with all four sides of the stage.
When: Until December 31; 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday
Or: Scenes, 800 Rosine
Details: Individual tickets start at $ 25, with savings for groups of six or more; 713,527,0123; stagehouston.com
The setup is that she teaches us the story of Christmas, but “the Christmas catechism” is fueled by comedic moments that satirize the Catholic Church (not offensive, just humorous) or make fun of the audience. What keeps you on your toes is that you don’t know if Sister is going to laugh at your group (non-Catholics!) Or just at you – so be prepared for anything.
Its cheap prices for answering theological questions about Christmas are also appealing (eg, a straight “secular” candy cane for those not in the church, as you can’t make a “J” with it) and the hilarious costumes for the live nativity scene that evolves over the course of the show. Yes, someone is wearing a tablecloth. I will not disclose more.
You never forget that Sister is a Sunday school teacher – and the riffs on stereotypical nun behavior, from raping rulers to shaming women for revealing clothes, get a lot of laughs. It is surrounded by red and white snowflake wallpaper, adorned with glittering angels and religious candles. But, liberties are taken: her religious candle sits on which José Altuve sits, and Sister admits she has to go to confession for her impure thoughts on the baseball superstar and the “baseball pants”.
Fennell’s monologues and dialogues with the audience are really funny, like when she admits to increasing her alcohol consumption during her forties and being fed up with her sisters’ black and white outfits at the convent when they have to all stay together. But there are also sweet times, when you really marvel at the meaning of Christmas, whatever your beliefs. Fennell can really deliver the perfect one-liner and then remember it and come back to it later in the show.
So indulge yourself in Sister’s humorous worldview. Agree with her that canned wine has “no guilt involved – you have no idea how much you’ve drunk.” Marvel at his rebuke of a woman with a low-cut shirt to cover her chest with Kleenex: “Don’t stuff it, spread it!” Give up being what Sister calls the “sensitive generation” and have a merry little Christmas with the keyword “merry”. Hear her version of the Virgin Mary being “spoiled rotten – just like Jackie Kennedy!” If you need a little Christmas, right now, let Sister and her animated antics deliver.
Doni Wilson is a writer and English teacher in Houston.