'A VERY MERRY UNAUTHORIZED SCIENTOLOGY PAGEANT' (Full page article)
Where: Powerhouse Theatre, 3116 2nd Street, Santa Monica When: 8:00 pm, Thursdays through Saturdays; 7 pm, Sundays Ends: November 21, 2004 Price: $25.00 Contact: (866) 633-6246
Iconoclasts: Kyle Jarrow and Alex Timbers in front of Church of Scientology logo at Los Angeles' Celebrity Centre says pageant intends to be both ironic and sincere. (photo caption)
Heavy Hitters: Anthony Quinoez, 8, as Tom Cruise; Chigoriri Ikeme, 9, as Kirstie Alley; and Kristopher Barnett, 11, as John Travolta. (photo)
Off-Broadway, it was a sleeper hit. But how will the unauthorized (and deeply sincere) camp of this 'Pageant' play in the cradle of Scientology?
by Charles McNulty
The sound of sleigh bells fills the air. An elementary school princess walks onstage in an angel costume that looks as if it has just been retrieved from a church basement. She opens her mouth to sing, and smiles instantly appear on the faces of the adults in the audience.
Hey - wait a minute - what's that song she's trilling? The lyrics are all about "dead flowers" and "people hurting." And did that big kid standing next to her just say his name is L. Ron Hubbard? Something's not quite right about these yuletide theatrics. Maybe someone should check to see that the exits aren't barricaded.
Actually, there's no need for paranoia, though the alternative universe of Kyle Jarrow and Alex Timbers' "A Very Merry Unauthorized Scientology Pageant" may take some getting used to. The production's irony-rich situation - the biography of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard (1911-86)told in the manner of a jazzed-up saint's play - is performed without winks or elbow nudges. Somehow the cast of child actors (ages 8 to 12) and the catchy electronic pop score serve to underscore the work's loony conviction.
An Off-Broadway sleeper, "A Very Merry Unauthorized Scientology Pageant," was called the "gutsiest gimmick in New York theatre for 2003" by Ben Brantley of the New York Times. After an extended run (moving from a shabby storefront theatre to the respectable John Houseman Theatre), the hourlong musical capped of its surprising success by winning an Obie Award.
How this satiric celebration of Hubbard's life and writing - from his Navy days to his success as a science fiction writer to the founding of his church in 1953 - will be received in a city of such devout Hubbard followers as Tom Cruise, Kirstie Alley and John Travolta (all of whom appear as characters in the play - Kirstie is portrayed by a black child) is anyone's guess. One thing is certain: "Scientology Pageant" will have a more fervid audience, pro and con, when it makes its West Coast premiere at the Powerhouse Theatre.
Andrew Barrett-Weiss, the Powerhouse's executive artistic director, says he is thrilled to be bringing the show to "Scientology's Jerusalem," though not as any kind of taunt. "Scientology is such a secretive world," he says. "One of the things I like about the show is that it's not a hatchet job. It presents alot of information and lets the audience draw its own conclusions."
Chatting about "Scientology Pageant" at an unassuming Irish pub in Manhattan just before the start of the rehearsals in Los Angeles, playwright-composer Jarrow and director Timbers seem a bit more nervous about how their respectful mockery of Scientology will be received. Yale grads in their mid-20's, they look more like arty Ivy Leaguers than 'enfants terrible' prepared to take on a formidable religious institution.
"Alex came up with the idea, which had two parts: Do a show with children for adults and do something about Scientology," says Jarrow, the more impish of the two. "At first it struck me as crazy, but then I began to see a connection. I did alot of work on cults in college, and what I learned is that they sort of turn you into a child by appealing to that part of you that wants to be taken care of and given answers. And so it all began to make sense to me."
Jarrow says he locked himself in his New York City apartment and read everything he could about L. Ron Hubbard. "He teaches that when you are a child, life is great, but as you get older, things start to seem awful," Jarrow explains. "You think the world has changed, but really you have."
In both life and in "Scientology Pageant," it's not always easy to tell whether Jarrow is being reverent or mocking. Part of the slipperiness may have to do with his fear of provoking the very litigious Church of Scientology.
Chel Stith, a public relations officer at the Los Angeles chapter of the church, raised concerns about "children being used to forward a message of intolerance," though she made no hint that a lawsuit was in the offing. "It's a little play," she says. "It's nothing to us."
Yet, early in the development of the piece, Jarrow and Timbers' had been advised by attorneys to insert the word "unauthorized" in the title of the play as a legal shield. This was after the Rev. John Carmichael, president of the Church of Scientology in New York, got wind that a production dealing with Scientology was in the works. According to press reports, Carmicheal fired off a letter to the New York producer, Aaron Lemon-Strauss, voicing his displeasure at the possibility of ridicule and pointing out many of the church's past lawsuits.
The children's neutral delivery of the science of Dianetics, for example, captures not merely the absurdity of such things as the electropsychometer (helpfully explained by stick puppets), but the feeling of emptiness that drives some people to seek spiritual rescue.
For Timbers, the ultimate goal is to generate passionate dialogue. "Kyle and I used to talk a good deal about post-ironic theatre," he says. "We're interested in deconstructing icons and rebuilding them in a way that's fair to their essence. We want to be both ironic and sincere.
The irony, apparently, is the easy part. "It's in the frame of the Nativity story," he says. "The emotional reality of the piece was more challenging. I think Kyle struck a good balance because, while many find the show funny, it has also moved alot of people."