Upon entering ACT's downstairs theater for Sister's Christmas Catechism, audience members are greeted by a most welcome sight: a kids' choir, a dozen or so members strong, arranged on risers on the stage. Over the run of the production, various local choirs will alternate singing duties. The night I attended, our choir hailed from the Human Harmony Music Academy and featured 11 kids between 5 and 14 singing Christmas standards laced with rudimentary choreography; it was freaking adorable.
It's a risky thing for an actor—especially a solo performer—to share a stage with the unfettered, idiosyncratic humanity of a kids' choir, but if anyone could do it, Aubrey Manning could. Not only has she honed her interactive-solo-performance chops over a 10-year run in ACT's Late Nite Catechism, by now she qualifies as a common-law nun, and there's not a Catholic school–teaching sister in the world, real or fake, who's gonna let a bunch of uppity whippersnappers steal her God-given thunder.
Some background: Sister's Christmas Catechism is the holiday offshoot of Late Nite Catechism, the wildly successful solo show written and originally performed by Chicago's Maripat Donovan, in which the audience is cast as a class of Catholic-school students whom Sister lords over with a sharp tongue and an iron ruler. It sounds cute—and it is—but it's also pretty fucking funny, thanks to the unquenchable comedic power of someone dressed like a nun and acting like a jerk. Truly, Sister Tell-It-Like-It-Is is a comic archetype on par with a monkey on skates, and Manning—the Seattle actress who made Catechism a decadelong local smash—nails her portrayal, laced with unforced warmth and an impressive knowledge of Catholic lore. (Inspired only by an audience member's confirmation name, Sister can spin a yarn about the most tangential saint you've never heard of.)
For Sister's Christmas Catechism, the interactive classroom action is bracketed by holiday-themed pageantry. The choir performs songs at the beginning and end, and an audience-participation re-creation of the Nativity (here spiked with a CSI-themed search for the magi's gold) takes up most of Act 2. As with Late Nite, the majority of Christmas Catechism is devoted to reenacting Catholic-school rituals: standing up when Sister enters the room, answering questions with "Yes, Sister," withstanding grillings on the facts of confirmation, etc. Manning's Sister is a master of the passive insult and an ace improviser, but an audience's enjoyment of the Catechism franchise seems directly related to its appreciation of Catholic culture. For me, a secular humanist on safari in Catholicland for the night, the repetition and cutesy punning wore thin before intermission. But for Catholics—and especially survivors of Catholic school—the Catechism shows unlock something primal. For people who lived this stuff, in situations where any humor was forbidden, Manning's Catechism creates a palpable giddiness.
Like ACT's Catechism, Open Circle Theater's The Judy Garland Christmas Special is built around a fierce improv talent: Troy Mink, the Seattle performer whose uncanny channeling of batty old dames is the stuff of legend (see The Haint, Carlotta's Late Nite Wing Ding). In The Judy Garland Christmas Special, Mink gets to channel one of the battiest old dames in history; he and a scrappy cast of fringe actors re-create the nonexistent dress rehearsal for Garland's legendarily messy CBS Christmas Special of 1963 (when Garland was a pill-popping, booze-quaffing tornado of erraticism). The conceit is a rich one, and Mink's embodiment of Garland is total. Unfortunately, as directed by Ron Sandahl, the sloppiness of CBS's Judy Garland Christmas Special is too often indistinguishable from the sloppiness of Open Circle Theater's Judy Garland Christmas Special. Beyond Mink, the show's guest list (daughters Liza and Lorna, musical guest Mel Torme) is a grab bag of hamminess that does nothing but distract from the central performance, which is left with little to rub up against until Special stumbles to its close. After each performance, the audience is invited to stay for a group viewing of Garland's original CBS special, presumably to help contextualize the mess that came before. It's a losing proposition.
There are two types of Dina Martina shows: big, multimedia blowouts and cozy cabaret affairs. This year's The Dina Martina Christmas Show is one of the latter, with our internationally beloved psycho-drag chanteuse accompanied only by her stone-faced pianist (Stranger Theater Genius Chris Jeffries) and her own aggressively talent-free brand of superstardom. Things get off to a slow start, with Dina creator Grady West wandering through some clowny, repetitive shtick, but things kick in as Dina's psyche splinters, dragging the whole notion of a Christmas show kicking and screaming into the stratosphere. Make no mistake: The Dina Martina Christmas Show is for people who hate Christmas, or at least love to hate Christmas. But with its warped tour of the holiday songbook, smiley-faced blasphemy, and uniquely sweet brand of mind-fuckery, Dina's Christmas show once again coats audience members in something very close to the holiday spirit. Special gifts of the 2009 season: shocking testimonials about lactating pugs, aggressively molested Billy Joel songs, and an alarmingly high-energy finale. Also: Dina's first display of actual musical talent EVER. If you can get a ticket, get a ticket.