Lack of direction makes for ho-ho-hum night
|Mother Superior’s Ho-Ho-Holy Night|
Review by Joy Campbell
It is an expectation of what I’ll call The Nun Genre that the sister in question will represent the old-school-nun type: dictatorial, inflexible., a woman whose ability to dominate and instill fear is a model for drill sergeants at Camp Lejeune, a traditionalist who privately believes that Vatican II was a communist plot. A character who believes it’s her way or the highway to hell.
The precept of this show by Vicki Quade is that there is a competition for the best holiday pageant, and Sister Gabriel wants to win the opportunity to perform at the Vatican. She plans to do this by enlisting our help in combining the secular and religious traditions of Christmas. This plot line, once stated, however, gets somewhat lost in a loose script of trivia questions and commentary on the holiday from a secular and religious perspective.
When a comedy has a nun taking on the subject of Christmas, one expects the comedy to derive somewhat from a denouncement of the secularization of the holiday, especially given the big “Jesus is the Reason for the Season!” banner tacked on the classroom wall of the set. The classroom bulletin board does depict two versions of Christmas, with the Santa Claus version referred to as “Giftmas,” but that’s as far as the critique goes. And the rest is just a Q&A on such things as the origins of Santa and the gifts brought to baby Jesus. I kept waiting for punchlines that never came.
The show wanders aimlessly, with no real point of view. Again, we don’t see either a critique of the secularization of Christmas or any real humor in the attempt to combine the religious and secular; when Sister Gabriel mentions the other religious celebrations of the time (Hanukkah, the Muslim New Year, Kwanzaa), it’s in a straight, PC sort of way. Which works if you are educating people in the real world about tolerance, but this is not the kind of thing you expect from this kind of show and, frankly, it’s just not funny. Even if the goal is to incorporate these things into a more modern pageant, there has to be a point of view, even a misguided one. I’m not suggesting the show has to be offensive, but if you are going to create a comedy based on the notion of a traditional nun, or a nun used to one perspective trying gamely to take on others, or the absurdity of combining Santa and Jesus, your character has to follow through, or there’s really no point. Given that playwright Quade has made a niche for herself with “nun comedy” (Late Nite Catechism, Put the Nuns in Charge!, Sunday School Cinema, Saints & Sinners), I’d expect more from someone who seems well acquainted with this persona.
The nuns in the show are played in rotation by a number of actresses; the night I saw the show, Michelle Renee Thompson played Sister Gabriel. Thompson was energetic and likeable, and that was the problem. She’s nice. She’s approachable. While a fine actress, she’s miscast. Her manner when addressing us is more encouraging and cajoling than stern. She does correct us when we don’t respond with the requisite “Sister,” and calls out those who are talking, but rather than a fearful authoritarian, she is more like a substitute teacher. When I answered a question correctly and confessed that I used to be a Catholic, I expected a good lecture about returning to the church, some good old-fashioned Catholic humiliation, but she simply encouraged me to return. I understand there may be some reluctance to insult people, but I can’t imagine someone going to a show like this NOT expecting to be abused somewhat.
There is a lot of audience participation, particularly the second act where people are assigned roles and brought onstage, and I give credit to Thompson for her dogged determination to pull it off despite having “participants” who were less than cooperative (note to young men: you look far more “uncool” when you resist participating fully than if you just get over yourself and play along). Mary, though, as played by the mother of some of the men, was a hoot, and kudos to her for getting into the spirit of things.
This show has a lot of potential, and the script has many opportunities for some good laughs; it’s a shame that they aren’t fully explored. Sister Gabriel should know better than anyone that if you spare the ruler you spoil the fun.
Mother Superior’s Ho-Ho-Holy Night continues through December 28th at Royal George Theatre, 1641 N. Halsted (map), with performances Thursday and Friday at 8pm. Tickets are $30, and are available by phone (773-388-0730) or online through their website (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at Nuns4Fun.com. (Running time: 90 minutes, includes an intermission)
behind the scenes
Vicki Quade (playwright/producer/director)