Attend any church Christmas pageant and you'll probably hear the following excerpt from the Gospel according to Matthew: “When (the wise men from the East) saw the young child with Mary his mother, (they) fell down and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense and myrrh.”
While frankincense and myrrh (aromatic resins) would likely have been used for their fragrant qualities, what might have happened to the gold brought to the newborn Jesus? “Sister's Christmas Catechism” is a one-woman show that seeks to answer that centuries-old mystery.
Kimberly Richards has played the title character in the original “Late Nite Catechism” and its sequel, “Sister's Christmas Catechism” for nearly a dozen years. And while the “one-nun comedies” are scripted, they're interactive productions that involve both willing and reluctant audience members.
Richards didn't have to spend a lot of time researching the Catholic Church and its traditions to play a nun. She attended Catholic schools from elementary through high school, a 12-year penance that offered her countless opportunities to observe the personalities behind the habit.
“If I ask someone in the audience if are they are afraid of me and they say yes, my work is done here,” Richards said recently. “I was taught from day one to walk in the door and start admonishing them. You do that and then pat them on the head.”
Seeking volunteers from the audience, Richards creates a living Nativity on stage, a setting that allows her to figure out what happened to the missing gold. She likes to get a heterogeneous mix of participants, and after years of playing the good Sister, she knows who to zero in on.
“I use a different technique to choose each character,” Richards said. “For Joseph, I look for a Jewish carpenter. Sister has a theory though that Jesus was the last Jewish carpenter. I like to ask women in the audience why they think they deserve to play Mary.
“The classic response is ‘I'm a virgin.' I remember one woman who said she'd like to be a virgin again. One of the most unexpected volunteers was a head nun who had to be 87 years old. You can't anticipate moments like that.”
Richards says she calls on her years working in improv to help her through situations when audience members try to trip her up. It's not too hard either to guess who tends to be the most outrageous or ill-behaved patrons? The Catholics, of course.
“Anytime you're talking to an audience, you never know what's going to happen,” Richards said. “It's off to the races — you drive the car and they let you know what direction you're going to go in. Every night something different happens and the audience will always remember that.
“You can't write those moments and you can't recreate those moments. It's never mean spirited because it's always done in fun. And if something funny is going on, I'm laughing right along with them. The interesting thing about this show is that you could come five nights in a row and never see the same show twice.”