The memories had long ago faded into short, sharp sound bites for this lapsed Catholic. The short stint in their schools, the longer stint in their churches. The flowing black uniforms of the women who served their Lord with stern instruction and quiet meditations nearly brushed the linoleum under their feet as they made their way up one aisle, down another, looking over our shoulders to check our Jesus worksheets or connect-the-dots Last Supper. Some were kind and gentle, others less so. But I don’t remember any of them being funny. Oh, sure, there was the occasional harmless quip about Johnny’s underwear hanging out of his pants, or when Jane cut a fart at morning service. There were some funny priests, but I always thought that nuns were ordered to stay away from that human emotion upon fear of excommunication. Again, I was 10, so maybe I just wasn’t picking up the “zany” and “madcap” monologues they were putting down at 8 in the morning in the always-cold classroom.
Now we have a chance to sniggle, chortle and chuckle along with one of these holy taskmasters as she delicately lampoons the impossibly complicated, deadly serious rules and regulations that kept so many of us sweating and afraid in our most tender years. In Late Nite Catechism 2, you can relive those glory years with a cocktail in your hand and a knowing grin across your face. Although Sister (Lisa Buscani) talks tough, you know there’s little chance of being sent to the principal’s office or marked by a note pinned to your shirt. This one-nun play is a sequel to the very popular Late Nite Catechism that has toured here and abroad for years. Playwright Maripat Donavan was nominated for numerous awards as the originator of the role of Sister, and this time lets writer and performer Buscani pick up where she left off. Buscani, a former national poetry slam champion, looks and sounds like the real thing. Whether barking at an audience member about her low-cut dress, or diagramming on a chalkboard why Frank Sinatra is burning in hell, she has all the Holy Roller moves down pat.
Sister starts the evening by entering from the back of the theater, reminiscent of the way the real nuns always seemed to sneak up on you. After a polite introduction to a couple of real nuns sitting in the third row, she proceeds to single out those in the audience who are committing one or several infractions bound to land them within the grasp of Satan himself. Short skirts, open displays of affection and tardiness induce her never-ceasing wrath. After explaining why it’s not a good idea to be walking around displaying so much thigh, she nails the unprepared victim by telling her, “You’ve got public written all over you!” It’s all downhill from here, as she bravely takes on whisperers, inattentive or forgetful audience members, and generally anyone she sees acting outside the bounds of God’s favor.
Her pulpit is just as you may remember it from your early religious instruction. A large desk in front of statues of Jesus and Mary and a filmstrip projector raring to go. Sister explains that today’s lesson will be on penance, and you will feel like you’re making yours by enduring the funny and accurate re-creations of life under the mighty thumb of these brides of Christ. With a slightly Irish lilt, she laments the lack of women interested in the “orders,” and does her best for recruitment by letting you know that “they’ll take women with some retread.” She explains that she’s from the “Sorrowful Sisters of the Weeping Nun” order, then quickly whips out an old game board of Chutes and Ladders. From this game board she received inspiration for the much larger version hanging in the back of the classroom (made of the ubiquitous felt that nuns love so much). On this is the map to heaven and hell, with purgatory and martyrdom thrown in for good measure. It’s from this crudely made poster that much of her monologue springs. She talks about canonization and the only two physical bodies present in heaven (you figure it out) and a very funny explanation as to what happened to limbo once Vatican II got a hold of it. One of the most effective diatribes, she launches is into the ever-confusing nature of sin, the mortal ones and the venial ones and all the others in between.
An evening with the Sister goes by very quickly, as she mixes up the scripted material with looser, free-form interactions with the audience. Buscani can definitely hold her own with all the ad-libbing and off-the-cuff improvisational aspects of the show that keep the one-joke premise from growing stale before its time.
No, Late Nite Catechism 2 is not a blistering indictment or a Monty Python-flavored attack on Christianity or organized religion’s inherent hypocrisies. Its humor is more corny and cute than mocking, so you can bring your grandmother and not be worried that she’ll suffer any long-lasting spiritual damage.
See Late Night Catechism 2 at the Music Box inside of the Max M. Fisher Music Center (3711 Woodward Ave., Detroit); every Thursday through Sunday until Dec. 5. Call 313-576-5111 for ticket information.Dan DeMaggio is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]