On Theater: 'Sister' tickles Laguna audience

Periodically, the Laguna Playhouse is transformed into a classroom in a Catholic church where the action isn't quite irreverent but it's always very funny.

Yes, "Sister" Maripat Donovan is back, this time with the world premiere of "Sister's Easter Catechism."

Donovan, who wrote whatever material isn't ad-libbed during her teaching session, is back in the habit, taking some good-natured potshots at her Catholic heritage while putting a number of audience members on the spot.

This time around it's Easter, and Donovan answers some perennially challenging questions about the holiday — such as will animals go to heaven and why Easter always arrives on a different date; why isn't it the same time each year, like Christmas?

A good, and still puzzling, question.

Donovan explains that, long ago, church officials established the date of Easter as the first Sunday after the full moon following the northern hemisphere's vernal equinox. Got that? Basically, it varies between March 22 and April 25.

And, about cats, dogs and bunnies in heaven? Sorry, but according to Catholic doctrine, they don't have souls (although I'd never offer that explanation to my kitty, whom I expect to be with me when the time comes).

Donovan, a veteran comic actress who has turned her original "Late Nite Catechism" into a theatrical empire, is as sharp as ever, hovering over "pupils" in the audience and brandishing her pointer as a ruler. Improvisation and interaction are her stock in trade, and woe betide the playgoer who fails to start a question with the word "Sister."

At the opening performance March 17, for instance, she admonished one lady in the front row for exposing too much cleavage. For those whose answers were pleasing, she rewards them with rosaries or "holy cards."

The second half of the program is nearly all improv — Donovan runs a TV-style quiz, appointing one audience member as her assistant, her "Vanna White," as she puts it. In one such session, her two contestants must answer hypothetical situations with a paddle proclaiming V (for venial) or M (mortal) sin.

Gruff and foreboding, "Sister" Donovan runs a tight ship. Too much laughter or applause will induce a sharp rebuke. It's a routine the actress has polished and honed over the past two decades, and she's a mistress of interactive comedy.

"Sister's Easter Catechism" may be thoroughly enjoyed by non-Catholics, as well as non-religious types like the fellow in my mirror. It's a welcome revisit by Donovan, who considers her "home theater" to be the Laguna Playhouse.

TOM TITUS covers local theater for the Coastline Pilot.

If You Go

What: "Sister's Easter Catechism"

Where: Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach.

When: At 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, at 2 and 8 p.m. on Saturdays, 1 and 7 p.m. on Sundays through April 8, and at 2 p.m. on March 29 and April 5.

Cost: $30 to $65

For tickets: Call (949) 497-2787 or go to http://www.lagunaplayhouse.com

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