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Hitting the religious funny bone

Show delivers catechism in a way no nun ever taught it

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Joking about the habits of nuns for a living led American actress Kimberly Richards to start taking her own faith seriously.

"It's actually been very cathartic for me," she says of her dozen or so years acting in the comedy shows featuring a strict Roman Catholic nun.

"The theology is very important to me. Sister has to know the (Catholic) theology. Otherwise, she's just a standup (comic) in a goofy costume."

Originally developed by American playwrights Maripat Donovan and Vicki Quade, the Sister character is now part of a travelling seven-show franchise with various actresses.

Richards appears in the role at 8 p.m. today in a fundraising concert for the alumnae of St. Mary's Academy, 550 Wellington Cres. Tickets are available for $50 at www.stmarysacademy.mb.ca.

The two-hour interactive show presents Roman Catholic catechism in a way no nun ever taught it. Dressed in a traditional black habit and veil, Richards acts the part of a strict teacher, confiscating ringing cellphones from audience members, admonishing slouchers to sit up straight and forcing gum-chewing delinquents to spit it out.

"This is all about getting to heaven and avoiding hell," explains Richards about the premise of this version of late-night catechism, which includes a game of snakes and ladders connecting the up there with the less desirable place.

"We have a fun slide show about penance and the Ten Commandments."

The premise may be a bit old-school, but Richards says her audiences typically have a variety of denominations represented, and often some nuns or even a bishop.

"You don't have to be Catholic to enjoy it. If you went to a school with a strict teacher, you can relate," says Richards, who attended Catholic school for 12 years.

"I think the whole classroom setting is universal. People love to watch others get into trouble."

People who aren't Catholics -- deemed lesser religions by the Sister -- will still chuckle at the wisecracks, pokes and jokes, all considered good, clean fun, says Andrea Cibinel, alumnae relations director for St. Mary's.

"I'm Protestant. I'm Lutheran. My mom is coming for the second time," explains Cibinel, herself an alumna of the Catholic private girls' school founded in 1869.

Catholic practices and traditions may not be intrinsically funny, but the human condition is humorous no matter what the cultural or religious lens, says Danny Schur, writer and producer of the Perogy Supper Miracle, a comedic look at Ukrainian Catholic fundraising suppers.

"Non-Catholics and non-Ukrainians still recognize and laugh about the fact that modern society is overburdened and lazy, a situation within the Perogy Supper Miracle when the priest can't find volunteers," Schur says of his musical, performed a dozen times in a variety of denominational settings.

After all these years of putting on the heavy black habit and talking about Catholicism, Richards has found a place for herself back in the fold. Originally terrified about the question-and-answer section of the show, she decided to research her character by hitting the theology and church history books, as well as getting some practical advice from her aunt, who took her vows six decades ago.

Along the way, she's also visited nuns in dozens of convents and monasteries and come to appreciate their dedication and way of life.

"They have a great sense of community. The monastic life is very nurturing," she says.

Despite her admiration for women who dedicated their lives to the church, the 50-something Richards won't be joining their ranks any time soon.

"I'm not ready to take the vow of chastity," jokes Richards, who splits her time between her native California and Minneapolis, where her partner lives. Some of the nuns say you can become an associate where you don't have to give up money or men.

"As an actor, I've already taken the vow of poverty."

brenda@suderman.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 1, 2014 D12

History

Updated on Saturday, February 1, 2014 at 8:14 AM CST: Fixed photo caption, minor editing.

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