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Getting Schooled in Late Night Catechism

by Dan Knauss and Sonya Jongsma Knauss

Not at all like the superficial and often vindictive humor of many comic movies and plays that pertain to the Catholic Church, Late Nite Catechism has been described as reverent and even nostalgic for “the bygone days of Latin Mass.” “Nostalgia” literally means “a return home,” which sets one thinking about the “Catholics Returning Home” banners on churches such as St. Casimir and St. Mary in Riverwest, as do “Sister’s” reminiscences in Late Nite about the time when Catholic schools were packed, when you could get a hot dog and coke for a quarter on Las Vegas nights, and confession lines ran out into the street when it came time for Easter duty. However, Late Nite is not nostalgic in the sense of presenting an idealized vision of “the good old days,” just as it isn’t about mocking the past. A traditionalist and an iconoclast, Sister has little respect for nuns who gave up the habit, but she thinks women should be allowed to be priests, and as a kind of penance for her past sins, she makes children’s chairs from broken rulers. A good deal of impromptu humor arises from her invitation to survivors of Catholic schools in their 40s on up to share their stories about ruler-wielding nuns. But that is not to say that Late Nite is about group therapy or that Sister is light on discipline. Played on October 19 by Margaret Kustermann, Sister held the audience captive for 90 minutes, some more than others. “Methodists” were moved from the back row up to the front at the beginning of the class, and troublemakers ended up sitting on a tiny chair marked “Forgive Me” or found their noses docked in the “Circle of Silence” on Sister’s chalkboard. “Don’t put your arm around her, Richard,” she barked at one particularly troublesome audience member. “This is catechism, not a drive-in movie.” (That was one of the few quotes Sonya could write down before having her notebook confiscated and being reprimanded in front of the class.) Members of the audience were encouraged to use their full names, drawing special pleasure from sister if they happened to be biblical or if the word Mary was involved. “Abby?” she asked a 16-year-old in attendance. “Well, at least that’s close. Nuns live there.” Sister’s easygoing, storytelling manner drew the audience in and made for some interesting banter, as various people were called on to answer questions like, “What does the immaculate conception refer to?” Particularly compliant (“Yes, Sister!”) and knowledgeable audience members (like Dan) were rewarded with prizes like glow in the dark rosaries, a Jack and Jackie “Holy Card,” and a “Soldier of Christ” crucifix that doubles as a pocket knife, “just in case God is busy when you need his protection.” Late Nite continually plays on stereotypes only to uncover a complex individual behind Sister’s habit. Toward the end of the show, Sister’s mood becomes a bit somber as she reflects on her sense of decline in the Church and how far things have come since she grew up admiring the nuns on her street. After the show, Sister stands at the door, taking donations from audience members for a retirement fund for real nuns. Late Nite is quite unlike the cartoonish Irish stereotypes and fill-in-the blanks audience interaction of Miramar’s other offering, Flanagan’s Wake, which, if it is nostalgic at all, is nostalgic for a Disneyesque illusion of a culture. Late Nite has an edginess, levity, sadness, and spontaneity that comes from the fact that it has something real to remember and connect with; something alive or at least within living memory that is rich, complex, troubled, and capable of generating more than entertainment as a kind of diversion from reality. Late Nite Catechism is an audience-interactive play performed at the Miramar Theatre, 2844 N. Oakland Ave. Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 5 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. For tickets, call the Miramar Box Office at 414/967-4545. See www.themiramartheatre.com and www.latenitecatechism.com/ for more information.