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When Catholicism is funny

Observer Scene | Friday, January 21, 2005

“Late Nite Catechism 2 (Sometimes We Feel Guilty Because We Are Guilty)” transformed the Decio Mainstage Theatre into a Catholic grade school classroom and turned the clocks back for those in the audience who spent many an hour in such a classroom. From the religious and patriotic bulletin boards to the unworkable slide projector, from Sister’s desk – complete with a collection bank for the Society for the Propagation of the Faith – to the slate chalkboard with “JMJ” (Jesus, Mary and Joseph) written at the top, the only things missing to complete the parochial school classroom were the rows of uncomfortable student desks.But that omission was intentional – the classroom was the entire theatre, not just the stage, making the audience Sister’s pupils. Yes, that means audience participation – and if you think you can hide from Sister’s attention, you will be as successful as you were in grade school. Sister, played by Kimberly Richards, called the class to order promptly at starting time, a warning to those who may be habitually tardy, and started her catechism lesson.Richards had spot-on mannerisms; her deadpan style was enhanced with her reactions to members of the audience at our expense, both figuratively and literally. If she noticed someone chewing gum, she would make him spit the gum out, if two members of the audience were particularly close, she implored them to “make room for the Holy Spirit.”Throughout these ad-libs, Richards gave a grade-school lesson on sin and punishment, creating her own Catholic “Chutes and Ladders” game where certain actions brought people closer to heaven and other actions set people in purgatory or damned them to hell. But more than the theological lessons involved, “Late Nite Catechism” highlighted a Catholic culture and identity known to – and appreciated by – so many in the audience.Chesterton once wrote, “It is the test of a good religion whether you can joke about it.” “Late Nite Catechism” passes this test with flying colors – it is uproariously funny even when dealing with such serious matters. Humor, in dealing with serious matters, does not detract from but in fact reaffirms that seriousness. Catholicism is rich with such a sense of expression – in the 20th century one particularly thinks of Chesterton himself, Evelyn Waugh, Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy. “Late Nite Catechism” seizes on that rich history of self-effacement and uses it to attain noble ends. At the conclusion of the show, Richards explains the financial necessity for retired religious figures and takes up a collection to assist in their care, in appreciation of their selfless devotion. My only regret after seeing the show was that I had missed the first of Sister’s lessons, the original “Late Nite Catechism.”The show remains at the Decio Mainstage Theatre through Sunday, with matinee performances on both Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. and evening performances Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 7 p.m.