Maripat Donovan knows her Catechism. She grew up in an Irish Catholic neighborhood in Chicago where her family went to Mass every day, said the rosary - on their knees - every evening and it wasn't unusual for the lives of the saints to come up in dinner conversation.
Her favorite saint from a very early age was St. Lawrence. He was the martyr who was roasted over a fire for refusing to renounce Christ. Donovan swears that the way she heard it in elementary school, St. Lawrence even managed a wisecrack. "I'm done on this side - turn me over," she quotes faithfully.
St. Lawrence may not be the official patron saint of stand-up comics, but he was the inspiration for Late Nite Catechism, opening Tuesday for a week of performances at the Aronoff's Jarson-Kaplan Theater, under the banner of Fifth Third Bank Broadway in Cincinnati.
Donovan told the above story (with much embellishment) at a dinner party back in 1993 and a friend told her she should do something with it. So she did.
It took three weeks to write Catechism, an interactive comedy that puts the audience in the "classroom" where Sister confiscates lipsticks and candy, doles out glow-in-the-dark rosaries to the folks with the right answers, gives an assignment to be completed during the 15 minutes of intermission and pretty much explains everything we need to know (and more) about being Catholic. New York-based comic Kathy Cogan holds the ruler in Cincinnati.
Donovan and co-creator Vicki Quade did such a good job that Catechism is still running 10 years later, in New York, Los Angeles, London and many points in between.
The show's success, believes Donovan, comes because it respects its subject, even if it does have some fun with Vatican II. "Nuns know how to take care of themselves and everyone else," she says. "They work in hospitals, they're teachers, they perform elder care - they're with us our entire lives." In every city where the theater allows, Catechism collects for retired nuns ("They don't have Social Security!") after every performance.
Catechism, she says, doesn't avoid troubling questions about the Church.
During the question-and-answer improv, "It takes a lot of nerve to ask a nun what she thinks about priests molesting little boys, but it has happened," says Donovan. When she's on stage she firmly tells the class "the subject is not funny and we're not making fun of it here."
These days, Donovan is living in Los Angeles and writing more Catechisms.
Late Nite Catechism II: Sometimes We Feel Guilty Because We Are Guilty debuted in December and will start having bookings in March.
There will be a holiday Catechism ready for Christmas 2004 called "The Mystery of the Magi," Donovan chortles. "Sister uses modern crime-solving techniques to solve where the gold went. There's a forensic exam of the Nativity scene."
Late Nite Catechism plays at 8 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 3 and 7 p.m. Sunday. Tickets $37-$45. For reservations and information, call the box office at 241-7469.
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