Watching Sister’s Christmas Catechism one is reminded somewhat of Christopher Durang’s satire: Sister Mary Ignatius Explains it All For You. But while Catechism is ultimately light-hearted, Durang’s spoof takes more vitriolic aim at some of the dubious aspects of Roman Catholic theology. Both emerge from the same premise: We, the audience, are in Catholic parochial school, and Sister addresses us as her pupils. Comparing Catechism to a cringingly cute comedy such as Nunsense or Sister Act, it is a relief to discover it leans more towards the cranky and stern, in the hilarious mode of Brother Theodore. Hmmmmm. Perhaps a new genre, Monastic Comedy is emerging?
When “class” begins, it is the day of the Christmas party, there is an advent calendar on the wall, some appropriate decorations, and a very kitschy, plastic depiction of Joseph, Mary and Baby Jesus that feature the cherubic faces precious children. The incongruity of this is not lost on Sister, whose grim, wry air of resignation manages to be funny without being bitter. Nonie Newton Riley strikes an impressive balance between cynicism and the leavening of mischievous digs. She may single out particular students (audience members) to get a laugh at their expense, but it never feels cruel or petty. We never wonder if “Sister” goes home every night and seethes over politics and gin. In the same way that bilious, curmudgeonly Brother Theodore (or Don Rickles) gets a lather up, she never crosses over into the toxic or vindictive. She points out when someone’s behavior, or dress, might be inconsistent with Catholic Doctrine, but for some reason it seems intuitive and genuinely comical.
Sister just loves the current television trend towards cop dramas by way of Forensic Science, which explains the show’s subtitle: The Mystery of the Magi’s Gold. By enlisting our help, she attempts to solve the quandary of what exactly happened to the gold, after it was gifted to sweet little Baby Jesus. It is often the critic’s dilemma, it seems to do justice to a show without spoiling any (or at least too many) surprises. It seems pretty clear that casting in any one-woman performance would be crucial, and Ms. Riley is thoroughly delightful as she shares her annoyance on any number of topics. I think it’s also germane to mention what a revelation it is to discover Sister’s Christmas Catechism, in light of the woeful lack of freshness, intrigue, and gusto when it comes to live entertainment at Christmas time. I have no problem with A Christmas Carol (I understand DTC’s is first-rate) but even Tiny Tim deserves some R & R, don’t you think?
WaterTower Theatre presents: Sister’s Christmas Catechism: The Mystery of the Magi’s Gold, playing December 2nd-23rd, 2016. 15650 Addison Road, Addison, Texas 75001. (972) 450-6232. www.watertowertheatre.org