Head of the class

Humor and religion are two things people rarely associate with each other. They sample the latter as an intermittent opiate — something to assuage the insecurities of day-to-day living — or else elevate it to a life-or-death matter.

Either way, it’s not very funny.

But Maripat Donovan and Vicki Quade — authors of the wildly popular, interactive, one-woman theater piece Late Nite Catechism — don’t quite see things that way. Their off-Broadway smash hit takes a fond look back at the days of old-school Catholicism, before the Vatican II reforms of the mid-’60s. Catechism is a rare creation — a show that manages to find humor in a potentially volatile subject without mocking or belittling it.

The premise is simple. “Sister” (no last name, naturally) is there to teach her class (the audience) the ins and outs of the Catholic faith. Those who enjoyed (or endured) a Catholic upbringing will find themselves in familiar territory. But novitiates will be likewise entertained — and may even learn a thing or two before the “lesson” is finished.

Ever wonder what the difference is between a mortal and a venial sin? Sister is more than happy to bestow enlightenment on that subject. The good nun also barrels through such knotty points of dogma as the difference between the Immaculate Conception and the Virgin Birth, and what stigmata are — as well as dissecting the lives of assorted saints. She then quizzes her “students,” handing out trinkets such as glow-in-the-dark rosaries, laminated Saint cards and medals emblazoned with the likeness of Jackie Kennedy to those who can answer her questions correctly — and severely reprimanding those she perceives as being disruptive. And anyone talking, chewing gum or wearing a short skirt is likely to find him/herself a target of Sister’s ire:

“Every single day of your life, girls, before you leave the house, you should look at yourself in the mirror and say, ‘Hmm, I wonder if Mary the Mother of God would’ve chosen this outfit,'” Sister lectured during one memorable show.

Late Nite Catechism opened in Chicago in 1993, and has played to more than half a million people in America and Australia since. The show was primarily conceived by Donovan, who grew up on Chicago’s South side — where she underwent 16 years of Catholic education. She routinely entertained her friends with humorously altered stories of various saints. One friend finally told Donovan that she should write a show based on her madcap take on Catholicism — which is precisely what she and her partner did.

“We talked to a lot of friends, picked up some stuff from books on the lives of the saints, and wrote it as a 50-minute piece for a late-night weekend show,” Donovan once explained. “It began in an 80-seat storefront theater, and I thought it would run six, maybe seven weeks.”

Oh, ye of little faith.

Memorize this

Late Nite Catechism plays March 7-12 at Pack Place’s Diana Wortham Theatre, as part of the venue’s Mainstage Series. Evening shows begin at 8 p.m., with 2 p.m. matinees performed on Saturday, March 11 and Sunday, March 12. Tickets are available from the Diana Wortham Theater Box Office, and also from Malaprop’s Bookstore (55 Haywood St.). Tickets for the Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday shows, as well as the weekend matinees, go for $18 ($16 for students/seniors). Friday, Saturday and Sunday evening shows cost $20 ($18 students/seniors).

Due to the interactive nature of the show, only orchestra seats will be sold: “The one-week run of Late Nite Catechism is the first of its kind at Diana Wortham,” notes John Ellis, the theater’s managing director.

“People who see it insist that all of their friends come — thus the long run. It’s truly a theater piece that everyone can enjoy,” he adds.

Call 257-4530 to order tickets and for more info.

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