By Dana Casadei
Second grade was a rough year for me: bangs that were constantly in my eyes, a bright tie-dye vest that was worn as often as possible with my favorite plaid jumper. Great look, I know. My style choices weren’t my only issues, though; I had one of the scariest teachers of my education that greeted me weekly at catechism, Sister Augusta. She was my only encounter with a nun, and let’s just say she left her mark. So when I sat down at “Sister’s Christmas Catechism: The Mystery of Magi’s Gold” at the City Theatre, a flood of catechism flashbacks came rushing back. Thankfully this Sister (Mary Zentmyer) didn’t leave me with any nun PTSD.
The show begins with some Christmas sing-a-longs, “Hark! The Herald Angel Sings” followed by “Jingle Bells” to get audiences in the holiday spirit. But before you can belt the rest of “Jingle Bells,” Sister comes charging in, making countless remarks as she moves her way to the stage. Then the real fun begins.
While throwing out one-liners like “Leave room for The Holy Spirit” to a couple in the front, she begins to teach the class about the nativity. Side note: If you can’t handle a little ribbing, don’t sit anywhere near the front or volunteer to answer a question. Yes, there is Catholic trivia at this wonderfully interactive show, and Baby Jesus-themed prizes. But the show is so much more than just trying to win the prizes, with Sister commenting on everything from those who receive combination Christmas/birthday presents to her love for Animal Planet.
Zentmyer, who was nominated for a 2011 Wilde Award for her work in “Late Night Catechism 3: ‘Til Death Do Us Part” at The Gem Theatre, is a charismatic hoot. When she’s not busy guessing your confirmation name, she has an extremely warm smile and laugh, combined with amazing comedic timing. Her commentary is oftentimes as much fun as Maripat Donovan’s script. Zentmyer does this fun, zany dance periodically and overly enjoys saying “Rafael,” the name of an audience member. Let’s be real, though: The audience loved every time he was called on stage to help her. God bless Rafael!
Donovan’s script is full of zingers like “The Jewish people invented guilt, the Catholics perfected it” and Sister’s refusal to call the three wise men wise. This leads to a brief speech about what the three wise women would have done differently, and it is fantastic. Even if you aren’t a Catholic school or catechism survivor, the show will still leave you howling.
But there are some bumps along the way.
Sister’s microphone had an echo the minute she started through the audience. This continued through Act I, along with a muffled sound that happened time and time again. Thankfully it was fixed for Act II, but Sister’s microphone wasn’t the only issue.
Much like a kid waiting for the school bell to ring, the second act will make you antsy. While most of the first act felt fresh and fun, the second drags quite a bit. Sister didn’t begin to work on the “mystery” mentioned in the title until late in the show, by which point I was ready to leave. It doesn’t help that the mystery seems to be the selling point in the press release. I would have been perfectly content if the second act had simply cast a live nativity set and finished Mary’s story. There’s no need to add “CSI” to one of the most vital Christmas stories ever. Baby Jesus would not be impressed.
Not all of Act II is rough, though. Watching her dress and pick volunteers for her live nativity scene is hilarious, combining everyday items ranging from a toilet seat cover to lampshades to complete them.
If you ever had a nun as Satan-like as my Sister Augusta, “Sister’s Christmas Catechism” will leave you with memories of a nun that’s hilarious and warm. No rulers were used as hitting devices in this production.
‘Sister’s Christmas Catechism: The Mystery of Magi’s Gold’
City Theatre, 2301 Woodward Ave., Detroit. Tuesday-Sunday through Dec. 8. 2 hours, 15 minutes. $38. 313-471-6611. http://www.olympiaentertainment.com