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Sister's Christmas Catechism at ACT in Seattle
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A Trip Down a
Catholic's Christmas Memory Lane
Sister's Christmas Catechism at ACT
Review by Peg Doman
We recently went to see the Christmas program of “Late Night Catechism”, playing at the ACT Theatre in Seattle . For me, it was a trip down Catholic memory lane.
On the stage are a lawn-ornament, plastic nativity scene with kneeling Joseph and Mary and Jesus in a manger that looks like a fireplace log holder. Her desk is to the left with a decorated Christmas tree to the right which is surrounded by gift bags.
There was a contingent from the choir from the Seattle Symphony Chorale who began with about 10 minutes of Christmas carols, all about Baby Jesus, until they got to “Jingle Bells”. Then Sister came out and said that all Christmas carols must be about the birth of Jesus, so she adapted a new line for “Jingle Bells”: “Oh what fun it is to ride,with Baby Jesus in the sleigh, Hey!” If you hurry, you can get all the words in on the last line.
She introduces her Ed McMahon, her sidekick, Jason, and off we go, whizzing from one bit of Catholic trivia to another.
She asks, “Who’s finished all their Christmas shopping? Anybody here?” A woman and her husband in the front row, raise their hands. “What’s your name, dear?”, she asks the young woman. She answers, “Corey.” Sister replies, “Isn’t that a slug killer?” After more conversation, Sister states, “You know, 55 % of people are 95% finished with their Christmas shopping by the day after Thanksgiving. The other 45% are men.” She asks Corey’s husband, “And what’s your name, dear?” He replies, “Steven.” “Spelled with a ph or a v?” “V, sister.” “Ah, you know the real way is with a ph, don’t you.? Do you know when St. Stephen’s feast day is?” “No, Sister.” She addresses the audience, “Does anyone know when St. Stephens’s feast day is?” I raise my hand and she calls on me. “When is it, dear?” “December 26th, Sister.” “Good. Boxing Day. What’s your name, dear?” “Margaret, Sister.” “Ah, a good saint’s name. Do you know much about St. Margaret?” “Well, there are two saints Margaret, Margaret of Scotland and Margaret of Hungary.” “Actually, there are three. Margaret of Antioch was the first St. Margaret.” I decided then and there I have to look up St. Margaret of Antioch in the “Lives of the Saints” that came to me when my Uncle Father Frank died. Or, as Sister suggests, I could google it.
For answering correctly, Sister offers me one of two prizes, a holy card with Santa, excuse me, Saint Nicolas, and Baby Jesus on it, or some Christmas peeps. She asks me repeatedly, “Holy card or Christmas peeps?”, all the while, gesturing with her head towards the holy card. “The holy card, please, sister.” “Well, since you picked the holy card, you get both!” “Thank you, Sister.” Respect is everything when you’re in grade school.
An aside about holy cards: As grade school girls, we all ached to have a daily missel, a prayer book (with three ribbon markers) that had the unchanging parts of the Mass, in Latin and English, as well as the changeable parts of the Mass, such as the introit, epistle and gospel, as well as the feast day of saints. In my missle, I kept my collection of holy cards. We would go downtown on the bus and go to Kaufer’s, a Catholic supply store. They had racks of cards that were relatively cheap. We would pour over them, judging the merits of the blond, blue-eyed Christ Child versus the Sacred Heart or Mary or various saints in their various permutations. Should one go sentimental, picking the one with the pink and gold angels, or base our choices on a religious foundation, taking the one with the saint that one most admired? Our allowances were saved and Twinkies and Hershey Bars forsaken for a the choicest holy cards. Of course, these were traded liberally at school, used as barter for favor among the tier one popular girls or as a mercy among the tiers two through infinity of the not-so-popular kids. There was a science and a distinct pecking order among the “good, Catholic” students.
So, back to the production. Sister announces that her birthday is December 29th and asks if anyone else has a birthday during December. Several people do and they talk over the difficulty of getting only one present for both Christmas and their birthday, or even when getting separate birthday present, it being wrapped in Christmas paper. Sister states, “If anyone gives me a birthday present wrapped in Christmas paper, when it’s their birthday, June, July, August, doesn’t matter, I wrap their present in Christmas paper.”
She discusses the Apostles Creed, also known as the Nicene Creed, several saints and their lives, and goes into a deep discussion about St. Joseph and Mary. She reads a book about Mary and admits that some of it is supposition, but it’s based on what’s in the New Testament. An interesting fact is that St. Francis of Assisi produced the first Nativity play. I didn’t know that, even after visiting Assisi a few summers ago.
The second act is the staging of a live Nativity scene. Sister uses the techniques from her favorite TV show, “Forensic Files” to find who has taken the Magi’s gold.
Sister scorns the plastic Mary and Joseph and picks audience members, starting with some women who have come in holiday dress: Christmas sweaters and sparkly outfits. She interviews each and picks a few to be in the staging.
As each character is chosen, she dresses them in costume, which have been in the gift bags around the tree. The costumes are assembled from thrift store buys or donations and some are ingenious in their invention. Curtains, fabric yardage, T-shirts, a bath mat and toilet seat cover, even a blue and white Hawaiian muu muu (as Mary’s gown) were employed. All the animals - the ox, ass, and sheep - even have snouts. The sheep’s snout is one of those frat party, cheap, black plastic beer cups, clamped in the woman’s mouth. They face Sister as she dresses them and then turn around for the “reveal.” One of the funniest costume elements was for Melchoir’s headdress: a quilted, plaid blender cover, tied around with a scarf. It looked so much like the pictures, I couldn’t stop laughing.
The beauty of the “Late Nite Catechism” is that it’s actually a solo performance but with extensive audience participation. You don’t have to be raised Catholic to get the humor. Most of the people I’ve attended with aren’t, but everyone has a series of clichés about nuns and Catholic schools to give them a context. It’s fun to poke fun at the seriousness of a Catholic education and fun for me to remember the nuns who taught me for eight years during grade and high school. I especially enjoyed the Franciscans at St. Leo’s (a Tacoma all-girls high school.) I remember Sister Felicianna as always cheerful and looking for the humor in life, and merry, little Sister Brendan, our Latin teacher. As we read the “Aeniad” in second year Latin she giggled with us about the Roman gods, goddesses and the lesser mortals and the ‘naughty’ things they got up to.
Aubrey Manning, who’s played Sister in both of the “Late Nite Catechism’s” I’ve seen and in this Christmas program is a wonder. She has a script with facts and lines, but then she has a million facts on the tip of her tongue. She has to. I’ve not seen it but I think she could take on some scholars over the minutiae of Catholic life and saints. She’s quick and nimble and can turn a phrase with the best of the stand up comedians.
“Sister’s Christmas Catechism” runs through January 3 at ACT, A Contemporary Theatre, in Seattle . For tickets, call 206-292-7676 or go online to www.acttheatre.org.