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The Gem Theatre returns to the Late-Nite Catechism series for another round with Sister's Easter Catechism: Will My Bunny Go to Heaven? Unlike the previous installments, the current production is notable for being a world premiere, opening simultaneously in several cities just in time for Lent. Bolstering favorite gags and premises with new content, this production sticks to its greatest hits, but a solid performance by Sister (each of whom is certainly unique) and the variability afforded by the famous audience-participation element ensure the show feels like more than same schtick, different holiday.

Any viewer familiar with the series will recognize the components and beats of this newest installment; writer/creator Maripat Donovan and cowriter Marc Sylvia have found a formula that works for the premise. The first act is a blend of anecdotal remembrance of Easters past and Catholic restrictions on meat consumption, with requisite blasts of Vatican II: Sister sure loved the good old days. Nonie Breen's approach to Sister has curmudgeonly roots, but gets ever saltier the closer her ridicule gets to the mother lode. By the time she gets to describing the Stations of the Cross, her sly digs and chipper jokes about the scripture are happily unexpected and deliriously fun. The other material, including the thorny title issue of pets and their welcomeness through the pearly gates, works well enough on its own merits, but it remains the side dish to the Easter ham that is a nun jazzing up Biblical lore with subversive irreverence.

The play's second act is again reserved for that old chestnut, audience participation. Using a quiz-show format borrowing from Let's Make a Deal, The Price is Right, and even What's My Line?, Sister plays host to a number of games that involve selection rounds to pick contestants, several rounds of play, and distribution of prizes. With so many variables, including uncomprehending contestants, it's little surprise that Breen treats this challenge like a race against the clock, laying out rules beforehand and easing back on the banter in the name of efficiency. To her credit, she keeps the unpredictable nature of the show well in hand and never loses the thread of the complex, multipart games.

The other trappings of the series are in place as usual: classroom now awash in pastels and baby chick decorations; happy chirpy songs, this time with an animal theme; visual aids and kitschy prizes and candies; and, of course, rigid Catholic-school smackdowns รก la Sister. Strangely, this was the quietest and best-behaved Late-Nite Catechism audience I'd ever sat in, entirely void of latecomers and ringing cell phones. The audience's overall timidity ensured the placid house never fell out of order for Sister to restore; however, Breen also glossed over smaller opportunities, such as demanding a respondent's full confirmation name, that generally open further doors for ridicule and comedy. Which was the cause and which the effect would be difficult to parse, but it does reinforce that eager participants remain a major factor in the success of these productions. (The other extreme, acting out in hopes of repeated castigation, is a drawback of a more obvious and annoying kind. Viewers who take a happy medium, willing to raise a hand and accept whatever comes of it with openness and good humor, will get the most out of the experience.)

In all, Sister's Easter Catechism is exactly on par with its compatriots, no better and no worse, but a fine addition to the popular, ever-growing series. Cemented by a capable Sister, secretly funny under her dour expression, this production has something to offer whether viewers are completely new to the shows or longtime fans.


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