Live theater, unsolicited commentary. From Detroit to Lansing.


Because much of the content of Late Nite Catechism is concerned with Catholic doctrine, Sister asks at the top of the show who in the audience attended Catholic school. From my vantage point near the back of the Andiamo Novi theater, I was surprised by the impressive show of hands. However, given the laughs that welled up from the entire house, neither Catholic schooling, a background in the church, nor working knowledge of the Bible is a prerequisite to enjoy this winning one-nun comedy.

I had heard of this popular show before, but never seen it. My hand was not among those raised; Sister refers to my kind as "the publics," although I was brought up Catholic and knew the answers to questions on topics such as the Immaculate Conception and stigmata. In fact, for most of the two-hour performance, I found myself resisting the urge to chime in — Sister, I was sent to public school because my mother attended twelve years of Catholic school and vowed to never subject her own children to it — for the same reason as a number of my fellow audience members: to see what actor Mary Beth Burns would say. A clear veteran of this show, Burns takes the building blocks of a catechism curriculum and turns it into an interactive standup experience done utterly in character, and wearing a habit to boot.

The show is loosely structured to approximate an evening course for adults. Thus, the Andiamo Novi stage is made up like the front of a classroom, a set far better suited to this venue than any other I've seen. Completing the experience is the notion that viewers are not Sister's audience but her class, chastised for wearing provocative clothing or rewarded with cheap religious tchotchkes for correctly explaining the concept of Easter duty. Burns has cultivated a remarkable ability to find and incorporate nearly a dozen "students" into the show, with perfect recall for names and an even hand at taming hecklers. Accordingly, Sister easily breaks from the narrative thread and indulges in long and entertaining tangents, letting the interactive elements dictate the course of the show instead of rigidly adhering to a script.

Few jokes are directly related to the limp subject matter, so the comedy of the performance depends almost entirely on Sister, and she easily scores as many laughs from impromptu retorts as she does mocking Vatican II. Burns's take on the character occasionally enjoys the kind of scolding that suits the archetype, but despite her supposed longing for an older, stricter Catholicism, there is an underlying safeness and support that helps encourage the audience to play along. It's an understandable choice, although it occasionally creates dissonance from a character perspective. Another minor drawback was evident when Sister anticipated a laugh that didn't quite materialize, a minor quibble that only stuck out in contrast to the predominant freshness of the performance.

The five-week run of Late Nite Catechism features three different actors in rotation: Burns, Karen Sheridan, and Mary Zentmyer, all three with plenty of experience as Sister. The production is an outstanding fit for the Andiamo Novi, with roots in improvisation and character-based comedy acknowledging the theater's history with Second City, but without the sketch format that often highlighted the shortcomings of the space. This inventive concept, backed by a strong performance, should go over well with irreverent audiences of all creeds.


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