Then came my birthday. Conversationally, a coworker asked if I had planned for my bday. I mentioned my karaoke plans and then, after remembering these play plans, added that I was going to see a Christmas play at Stages Repertory Theatre. It was then that I realized I had no clue what I signed up for.
I googled. I had inadvertently agreed to go see a one-woman play (yikes) staring a nun (wth?) under the facade of her class (oh no) and with the plot line being that she, a CSI buff, wanted solve the mystery of the missing Magi’s goal (I’m sorry, what?). I drank two beers at dinner then a glass of wine at the theater in preparation for whatever I was in in for.
Stages is a small theater. It’s black box and you sit on risers, with the stage in the middle below. There is absolutely no fourth wall—hell there are absolutely no walls. We were in her Catholicism class and we were required to participate. Thankfully, we were warned of this by a guy sitting next to me—but I’m not sure of the difference it made.
Denise Fennell entered as Sister mid “Jingle Bells” and yelled at us with her thick Northeast accent. Most of the first act was crowd work. She asked people about their holiday shopping. She collected their gum in a Kleenex if they chewed overtly. And she asked everyone what religion they were—if they weren’t Catholic, she asked what hospital they were born in: “If it has a ‘saint’ in front of it, you probably are Catholic without even knowing.”
She gave gifts and heckled, making sure she hit every area of the risers. When someone shouted out at, she said: “You can’t just shout whatever you want because you know what we’d have then? Public school.”
Then, she pulled up a chair and told the whole story of Mary. She described her family, with modern references: Her father was wealthy and “If he was alive today he’d have a Ferrari.” She spoke of Joseph and how he was gone for 3 months before returning to find his impregnated wife. All the while, Fennell set the scene for the second act, which would be about the birth of Jesus.
We killed 15 minutes sipping soda and snacking, and when the play resumed, it was nativity scene casting time. See, she wanted to recreate the nativity so that she could analyze the scene and see who stole the gold. She picked a couple—she picked on earlier in the play—who had met online. They played Mary and Joseph. But before she settled on them, she asked the crowd who she should pick for Mary? One crowd member said: “A virgin!”
She then picked a rather strapping young man to be the Shepherd. He was with a girl, and Sister inquired about their relationship status. He was quick to say they were friends and that she had a boyfriend. At the end of the nativity she threw the Shepherd back to his “friend” and Sister said “Hey Shepard, I think it wooooorrrkkked!” He then put his arm around her. Poor boyfriend.
After the casting and the reenactment, Sister decided it was the little, innocent-looking drummer boy who made off with the magi’s gold. She got right in the crowd-member-turned-actor’s face and said “WHAT DO YOU HAVE TO SAY FOR YOURSELF?” He took a beat and said, “You’re good.”
Fennell is amazing. I will go see anything she’s in—and she’s got a non-sister play coming to Stages in February. I have so much respect for her improv and her character consistency. Every performance is different, and dependent on her audience, and gosh was my group’s crowd good.
Then, at the end (right before collection, this was after all a Catholic event), she gave some holiday advice. “If you have musicians over, check their instruments.”
Will do, Sister.