By Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor Published Dec 16, 2010 at 9:03 AM

To the surprise of probably everyone, Roman Catholic nuns occupy an entire genre of contemporary American theater.

The phenomenon began about 30 years ago with two substantive pieces, the trenchant drama "Agnes of God," which was later adapted for film, and Christopher Durang's bitter satire "Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You." It's intriguing to note that these plays were written and became popular before the resurgence of interest in religion in this country.

Both works have serious bite and are ripe for revival.

Nuns turned silly after that, with the goofy but fun musical "Nunsense" arriving in 1985 and becoming the second longest-running off-Broadway show in history. Five separate sequels followed.

The '90s brought us "Late Nite Catechism," an extremely successful solo actor show developed by Chicagoans Vicki Quade and Maripat Donovan. The setting is a parochial school classroom where a ruler-wielding nun holds forth with a sharp tongue. Everyone in the audience is fair game to come under the scrutiny of "sister" and receive a scolding for arriving late, chewing gum or wearing clothing that reveals a little too much skin. Unlike the other nun pieces, "Late Nite Catechism" is something of an inside joke for persons who attended Catholic schools.

Like "Nunsense," "Late Nite Catechism" has a slew of sequels and spin-offs. Quade and Donovan are now individually enlarging the franchise.

At this time last year, Donovan's "Sister's Christmas Catechism: The Mystery of the Magi's Gold" played Vogel Hall in the Marcus Center. Now it is Quade's turn, and her "Mother Superior's Ho-Ho-Holy Night" opened at Vogel Hall last week.

It's important to note that the Quade and Donovan shows are not really plays but fall more in the category of interactive standup comedy performed in a costume. While scripts provide a general outline, the comedies are about the nun mixing it up with the audience, and some people come prepared to spar with "sister."

That means the quality of the experience relies to some degree on the liveliness of the audience. If you have a few scrappy and funny people in the seats at your performance, the show is much more likely to be entertaining through two acts.

The "Late Nite Catechism" formula also requires a certain type of performer. The actress playing the nun must think fast on her feet and be comfortable working without much of a net. While the scripts always include at least a few reliable jokes, the pressure is on her to make a lot out of little.

"Mother Superior's Ho-Ho-Holy Night" follows the format. The good nun is brainstorming ideas for a Christmas pageant at St. Gabriel's parish. We are part of the process.

Andrea Moser is completely credible as Mother Superior. Performing on a schoolroom set that includes a portrait of Pope Pius XII and Christmas stockings bearing the names of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, she possesses the smug and smart-alecky attitude of a person in authority who believes she has a direct line to God. Those of us with Catholic schools in our background know the type.

Moser has a softer demeanor than some of the actors who have played the nun in these shows, but she is still a bulldog for the Lord.

"Ho-Ho's" script contains some amusing lines in the first act, including a prayer for a woman desperate for a date on New Year's Eve: "St. Ann, St. Ann, send me a man as fast as you can." But too much of the material is recycled from other pieces in the Quade-Donovan lineage.

An emphasis on giving and sometimes taking back holy cards -- you have to be Catholic and of a certain age to get this -- is wearing very thin. Devoting most of the second act to dragging audience members onstage to make fools of themselves is lazy scripting and causes the show to slow to a crawl.

The "Late Nite Catechism" format is not necessarily dead, but it needs fresh new blood. "Mother Superior's Ho-Ho-Holy Night" continues through Sunday.

Guys in a Tree Stand

Twelve years ago, Door County's American Folklore Theatre debuted a little musical about a couple of northern Wisconsin fellows gone ice fishing. "Guys on Ice" has been the most professionally produced theater piece in the state since then, with numerous productions mounted in Milwaukee, Madison and Green Bay as well as Door County.

The Milwaukee Rep toured it with great success to smaller cities and towns in Wisconsin, and the musical has also been staged across the country from New York to California.

Early in the development process of "Guys on Ice" in the '90s, members of the American Folklore Theatre company considered taking the concept in the direction of deer hunting rather than ice fishing. We know the outcome of that decision, but in the fall of 2009 the troupe premiered "Guys and Does," a new hunting musical in the usual AFT style of broad humor with a backwoods sensibility.

That production set a company record of 54 consecutive sold-out performances in Door County. Revived and moved to a bigger venue this fall, the show continued to be a box office blowout.

The AFT gives the southern part of the state its first look at "Guys and Does" this weekend when the musical is staged at the Oconomowoc Arts Center, beginning tonight. Five performances will be mounted in an engagement that runs through Sunday.

The Oconomowoc Arts Center is an attractive and comfortable 2-year-old facility run by longtime Milwaukee theater artist Michael Duncan.

Coon Gets National Attention

Carrie Coon is on a roll. The owner of a master's degree in fine arts from UW-Madison, she was cast in a Steppenwolf Theater Company production of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" in Chicago with Windy City heavyweights Amy Morton and Tracy Letts.

This week she received praise for her work in the show from New York Times theater critic Charles Isherwood, who wrote that she "imbues the sozzled Honey with a sweet sympathy and a hint of a backbone, and her tantrum of anguish at her husband's betrayal is powerfully affecting."

Coon has acted with the American Players Theatre in Spring Green, and she regularly works in Madison and Milwaukee. She was last seen here in October in the Renaissance Theaterworks production of "Reasons to be Pretty."

Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor

Damien has been around so long, he was at Summerfest the night George Carlin was arrested for speaking the seven dirty words you can't say on TV. He was also at the Uptown Theatre the night Bruce Springsteen's first Milwaukee concert was interrupted for three hours by a bomb scare. Damien was reviewing the concert for the Milwaukee Journal. He wrote for the Journal and Journal Sentinel for 37 years, the last 29 as theater critic.

During those years, Damien served two terms on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, a term on the board of the association's foundation, and he studied the Latinization of American culture in a University of Southern California fellowship program. Damien also hosted his own arts radio program, "Milwaukee Presents with Damien Jaques," on WHAD for eight years.

Travel, books and, not surprisingly, theater top the list of Damien's interests. A news junkie, he is particularly plugged into politics and international affairs, but he also closely follows the Brewers, Packers and Marquette baskeball. Damien lives downtown, within easy walking distance of most of the theaters he attends.