For three months of incredible heat, Houston theater companies have graced us with some chillingly good relief, allowing us to commune with their excellent air conditioning while indulging in some drama, musical comedy, Sherlock, Shakespeare, and a slice of cake. Main Street Theater even gave us a gorgeous tour of Streisand-land. But only recently has one company dared to really disrupt our summertime daze.
Indeed, one theatrical experience this August is holding up a mirror darkly to its audience, forcing them to confront the lies within their own hearts while giving them a glimpse into our city’s sinful soul. That show is of course Stages Theatre’s production of Sister’s Summer School Catechism: God Never Takes A Vacation.
For those not familiar with this twisted sister series, the first play, Late Night Catechism, was such a hit in regional theaters across the U.S, it spawned many high holiday (Christmas, Easter, Halloween, trips to Vegas) sequels. The main commonality of all the one-woman shows remain their indomitable hero, the gum-detecting, ruler-wielding, always stern, but fair, Sister and her eternal quest to provide a bit of religious instruction to this bad, misbehaving, gum-chewing world.
In this latest installment to hit Stages, Summer School Catechism (written by Maripat Donovan and Marc Silvia, with Silvia also directing), Sister is quite perturbed at her adult students (a.k.a the audience) because the diocese has summoned from her annual nuns’ retreat to teach this remedial class of malcontents needing summer school. I won’t spoil the description of summer camp for nuns except to say it involves a lot of swimming, hot dogs, and contemplation time with Sally Field, Whoopi Goldburg, and Julie Andrews.
The Catechism shows have very little plot, yet can succeed brilliantly, or occasionally stagger, mostly on the nimbleness and creativity of the actor playing Sister. In this Stages case, the always commanding Denise Fennell has once again donned the habit to create a Sister both hilariously exasperated and fierce.
The other major factor in the show’s success comes from the willingness of the audience to just go with the premise and follow our monumental (in spirit) penguin leader. Of course, the plastic baseball bat she carried in this production gives us added incentive to mind her lessons.
For two hours, with one intermission, Sister tells stories of growing up Catholic, but many of the moral of those stories strike universal cords no matter with what religious teachings, or lack thereof, her “students” were raised. She also gives quizzes and does much scolding when confronted with bad behavior, which she inevitably always discovers.
And don’t think the audience gets a reprieve at intermission. There will be homework, or in this case lobby work, while partaking in that glass of wine at halftime.
It’s all a bit of frivolously summertime fun, except one of the big setups in this Summer School sequel has a bit of an subversive kick to it. I won’t reveal too much because that would enable cheating, but the show I attended on a Wednesday night was sold out and the audience soon susceptible to Sister’s prodding and demands for the truth. Let’s just say the audience learned quite a lot about each other.
I managed to avoid making my own full confession to Sister, but did have a kind of theatrical epiphany during the evening. I realized in some ways these Sister (two-acts) shows are a kind of sneaky immersive theater, just for those theater-goers who would only be caught in a dark warehouse in Brooklyn interacting with naked actors pantomiming bits of Alice in Wonderland or MacBeth, if they actually were a dead body used as a prop for the show.
With the right audience, Summer School might strangely enough have the power to reveal as much about the participants as the most experimental of immersive experiences.
The ancient irony of theater is that sometimes this bit of fiction and shared make-believe on a stage can bring real human truths to light, even when that light is staged. Sister’s Summer School Catechism: God Never Takes A Vacation manages through a lot of silliness and laughs to get the audience to reveal their own specific truths to each other and perhaps, along the way, make us all feel a bit more divinely human.
Sister’s Summer School Catechism: God Never Takes A Vacation runs through September 9 at Stages Theatre.