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Image: Bruce Bennett

With a winning combination of comedy, improvisation and audience interaction, Denise Fennell reprises her role as Sister for a third installment of Late Nite Catechism: ’Til Death Do Us Part, playing now through April 23 at Stages Repertory Theatre. Focusing on the sacraments of Marriage and Blessing of the Sick, Fennell brings wit to Catholic truisms and, like an actual school teaching nun, commands the audience like a classroom.

You don't have to be Catholic to appreciate the humor embedded in Maripat Donovan and Vicki Quade's hilarious 1993 comedy. Donovan originally played Sister in Chicago, where the one-woman participatory show premiered, and toured with LNC nationally and internationally for years. In 1999, she was nominated for both the Outer Critics Circle Award in New York for Outstanding Solo Performances and the Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Solo Performance in Los Angeles.

Fennell, who performed in Stages' production of Shear Madness last year, garners hilarious reactions as the script leaves room for improvisation with the audience. You can watch this performance several times without seeing the same show twice. 

The play is funny from the outset. Set in a Catholic schoolroom, replete with lockers, the alphabet and images of saints on the walls, Sister tells us about a nun beauty contest and quips about a fellow sister wearing a “black tankini.” When she asks an audience member what religion she practices—"Episcopalian," she responds nervously—Fennell quickly fires back, “Oh right, Catholic Lite,” mentioning that Catholic school is “just a little bit better.” 

There are lots of clichés associated with Catholicism, but Fennell manages to make fresh and funny observations. Quick on the draw, when one dating couple in the audience confesses that they both work in architecture, Fennell doesn't miss a beat, saying “He designs the buildings and she corrects them.” Her comedic dexterity and quick-on-her-feet responses are similar to the style of Joan Rivers, sans the adult language. It takes a lot of talent to be funny without being mean or vulgar, and that in and of itself is a considerable accomplishment.

Fennell's performance is full of fun surprises—she gave an audience member a glow-in-the-dark rosary—as she shares Catechism lessons and odd-ball theological scenarios, like in the event of an outer space invasion, “Aliens would still be God’s creatures.” But her dialogue with the audience about marriage is comedy gold. She encourages dating couples to marry, reminding one guy that his girlfriend is “A nice Catholic girl—she’s suffered enough.” It’s all in good fun, and culminates in a very funny spoof of a dating show called, “The Compatibility Game.” Sister also shares that in heaven, “Everybody’s single and it’s a big wine tasting.” Preach.

Fennell is a superlative character actress who builds an electric rapport with the audience as the production unfolds. I have seldom seen a crowd so engaged with a play. With convincing acting and impeccable timing, her performance merits all the praise.

From $35. Stages Repertory Theatre, 3210 Allen Pkwy. 713-527-0123. stagestheatre.com

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