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Brace yourself for a catechismic event

Class is back in session, and Sister is in rare form. Late Night Catechism, written by Vicki Quade and Maripat Donovan, is a life lesson you don't want to miss. Mary Beth Burns, a veteran of Chicago's Second City Improv tours, is clearly in her element in this one-woman show. A combination of religious instruction, audience interaction and game-show antics, this Catechism is a wildly witty and slightly scary encounter with the myths and realities of Catholicism.

Class begins with Sister greeting the audience as her adult catechism class, chastising gum chewers and offering fashion advice: "Ask yourself, 'I wonder if Mary, Mother of God, would have picked this outfit out?'" She reminisces about the heyday of Catholicism (the Baby Boom), when the Catholic schools were overflowing. The sweeping changes wrought by Vatican II, when "they turned the priest around to face the people, like a cooking show" and eliminated the requirement for nuns to dress in black habits, reduced the power of the church (in Sister's opinion). But this Vatican criticism is touched on lightly. Mostly Sister teaches some basic Catholic facts: the Immaculate Conception (or "the immaculate MISconception"), Easter duty, and collecting money to save pagan babies.

The delight of the show is Burns' constant interaction with her audience. Whisperers are called to order. Latecomers are fined. Everyone must address Sister in full sentences, and prizes are awarded for correct responses. In one of the funniest moments of the evening, when a person offered a response that was nearly correct, Sister urged her on with: "If you can answer that question using the word 'stain,' I'll upgrade you from the two-inch statue of Mary to the five-inch statue!" (The person could, and did receive her prize upgrade.)

A key portion of the show is an audience vote for which saints get to stay on the roster and which get laid off: "Thumbs up -- stay a saint; thumbs down -- not a saint!" Peppering her descriptions of the saints with hilarious side comments ("You can forget about the Neosporin -- stigmatas never heal!"), Burns skillfully works the audience. A lesson on the proper use of the St. Joseph statue to sell your house leads seamlessly into a biblical puzzler, which segues effortlessly into a discussion of evolution.

The most intriguing portion of the show comes when Sister brings out a little chair she's constructed out of rulers broken in disciplining boys (because "boys are bad and girls are good," she reminds us). "How many of you got whacked?" she asks, and a dozen or so hands raise immediately. Whacking stories follow (the third grade was definitely a tough year for many kids in the Catholic schools), and Sister graciously opens up the floor for a Q&A. On this night the questions are rather tame: "Why didn't you talk about Saint Louis?" and "Why do Catholics eat fish on Fridays?" It would have been interesting to see someone ask a gritty question, like what Sister thinks about women who want to be priests, or about priests who abuse children -- but perhaps that's pushing this show beyond its whimsical boundaries.

With so much of each performance depending on audience stories for fuel, Late Night Catechism is clearly different each night, and Burns seems to relish that. Her twinkling eyes search the audience for new material even as she works details from earlier stories into running gags. She's obviously an expert in both Catholicism and Chicago -- her ability to throw Catholic trivia into impromptu discussions is impressive, while her authentic accent is apt to make you crave a Lou Malnati's deep-dish pizza and a glass of pop.

Sister ends the night on a philosophical note, discussing the "leap of faith" required to be a believer. While she worries that the Catholic Church may be in Limbo, it's clear that Late Night Catechism is in a much more secure place. It's a heavenly meeting of humor and faith that's relevant regardless of your religious beliefs.

But don't be late, spit out your gum and bone up on your ejaculations. (Don't worry, Sister will teach you how.)

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