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Although most of the things that terrified us as children aren't worth revisiting, the popularity of the Late Night Catechism franchise is proof positive that adults sure do love to get scolded by nuns. The latest southeast Michigan installment is Century Theatre's Sister's Christmas Catechism (by Maripat Donovan with Jane Morris and Marc Silvia), a holiday flavor of the very familiar framework. With well-seasoned Catechism star Mary Zentmyer and director Marc Silvia, this comedy takes the concept of putting the Christ in Christmas and turns it on its head.

All nuns are not created equal, and what keeps the show dynamic and fresh is seeing the different takes on Sister in action. Zentmyer, a near-fifteen-year veteran, has crafted a hilarious and multidimensional character in her almost-saucy, eclectic Sister, cracking jokes and acting the ham as she reads the story of the virgin Mary aloud. Although no stranger to resorting to punitive measures to keep order in her class, Zentmyer's Sister is engaging and personable, the kind of teacher students might remember as the goofy one, but revere nonetheless. It's a sly twist on the imposing-nun stereotype that started the franchise in the first place, yet no less effective or funny.

The Century's production features a light Christmas-carol soundtrack in the form of musical coordinator Dan Greig and a quartet of young-sounding voices. They are sent away for the first act, which replicates the format of Late Night Catechism to a tee: the pop-quiz trivia about Catholic dogma, the baffling religious prizes, the public castigations. However, the second act introduces something new, as Sister — inspired by CSI-type procedural television programs — seeks to solve a centuries-long mystery concerning the whereabouts of the Magi's gold. With ample help from audience volunteers and cheeky costumes by Catherine Evans, she painstakingly crafts a living nativity; although simply recruiting and dressing the participants takes up most of the act, Zentmyer keeps things moving with outstanding improvisational skills that inform crisp interactions and preserve the flow. The decoration-adorned classroom set by Scot Cleaveland is complemented by Neil Koivu's lighting, which keeps the focus on Sister but allows her to see viewers' faces and easily transition from her post onstage to the venue floor.

By necessity, the premise's greatest asset is also its biggest drawback: the audience itself. Although most audience members speak only when spoken to, giggling through their punishments and proving to be easy marks, there always seem to be a few bad apples whose combination of pre-show cocktails and craving for attention causes them to act out, generally long after being instructed point-blank to stop. Here, the extended audience-participation segment sets Sister up for troublemakers, ruffling Zentmyer's practiced cool only in the slightest, but a frustrating exercise regardless. Viewers are encouraged to remember that behind the character of Sister is a professional actor trying very hard to finish by the two-hour mark, paid to perform a (loosely) scripted play and not to wrangle hecklers. In essence, the production is at its best when Sister is allowed to run the show.

Sister herself best describes Sister's Christmas Catechism: lesson first, then class party. This retread pays its dues to the premise of its predecessor, but then ventures into new territory intended to capitalize on the artist's vast extemporaneous skills. As holiday fare, the show gets a built-in boost from its religious content that's likely to be most effective for former Catholic school students, but Zentmyer's admirable command of the material and comic sensibility has far broader appeal for any viewer that may appreciate making light of the reason for the season.


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