IF YOU GO
What: Interactive, participatory show with a nun teaching late night catechism class
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday - Saturday
Where: Naples Philharmonic Center for the Arts, 5833 Pelican Bay Boulevard, Naples
Cost: All remaining shows are sold out; check with box office for possible returns or cancellations
Information: 800-597-1900 or thephil.org
On the Web: Sign up to receive more theater news from the Stage Door blog via email.
NAPLES — Flavors from across the religious spectrum crowded into the Daniels Pavilion at the Naples Philharmonic Monday for the world premiere of "Late Nite Catechism Las Vegas: Sister Rolls the Dice." Denise Fennell's stern nun came up trumps on laughter, with nary a snake eye (but many a sinner) in sight.
The "Las Vegas" installment is fifth in a series that imagines a strict (but ultimately fun-loving) Catholic nun teaching an after-hours catechism class. Though not expressly advertised as such, shows are highly participatory - and believe me - you DO NOT want to chew gum or put on lipstick in Sister's class.
I'm on record as disliking audience participation shows - but "Late Nite Catechism" makes the concept work better than nearly any other show I've seen. However, it wouldn't work without a truly gifted gal in the habit - and Neapolitan audience got a great one.
"Catechism" is partly scripted in that there's a basic storyline, but the performer has to improv and interact with the crowd - and that's an incredibly difficult task.
This show sees Sister (played here by a marvelously funny Denise Fennell) prepping for St. Bruno's annual fund-raiser - which is to be a casino night. "We're Catholic - we can have fun," Sister tells the roaring crowd. Catholics can also drink, gamble ("but we don't pray for the other person to lose") and dance.
Fennell zips through an evening that pokes fun at virtually every religious cliche in the book. She also does a few simple magic tricks - starting the evening by crushing a patron's glasses in her "magic" bag before bringing them out as good as new.
What Fennell does so well is pick out moments - a gum-chomping patron, for instance - and work the moment into her prepared routine. "Spit it out! Spit it out right now!"
Her skill at turning the most trivial observations into comedy gold extends to random fashion commentary. "There's a lot of leopard in this room. It kind of reminds me of Lion Country Safari."
She doesn't care if you drink during the show (wine is fine for Catholics) - just not bottled water, as one patron found out. There was a lecture: "Look up there. Do you see Jesus on the crucifix? Do you think while he was hanging in the dry desert he would have like a bottled water?" Roars of laughter.
Audience members should never feel shamed for being singled out. Much of the humor is "laugh with me, not laugh at me." Be a good sport and you'll likely leave with a prize. If you're Catholic - and volunteer your first, middle and confirmation names when called upon - you might score prayer cards, a crucifix or even lottery tickets (because gambling is A-OK with the church!)
Because this is ostensibly a "catechism" class, the non-Catholics also learn the difference between a venial sin and a mortal sin - and what happened to all those folks who ate meat on Fridays. And did you know that Anthony was the patron saint of lost items?
A possibly too-long first half (75-minutes) could stand alone as a single-person show, although there's no clear "ending." The brief (and unfocused) second half features a random series of Catholic trivia questions, a blackjack game and more.
It's basically a series of "giggle at the dummies in the audience" moments and a chance for the brave kids to score more trinkets. Raise your hands if you want to win something. Screamingly funny, I'll admit, but not necessarily intellectually stimulating.
Anyone from Buddhists to Zoroastrians will enjoy attending this "Late Nite Catechism." Denise Fennell serves up a well-practiced formula and melds it with her own sharp, witty and spectacularly brilliant comedic eye. Just don't chew gum in class. Also? If you meet one of the Sisters of Mercy in a dark alley? Run like hell!
My favorite nun? Deloris van Cartier. Email me, email@example.com, find me on Twitter at @napleschris or read my Stage Door theater blog. You can also sign up to receive the Stage Door blog via email.
Full Disclosure: Naples Daily News publisher Dave Neill is a member of the board of directors of the Philharmonic Center for the Arts.