(includes a photo from the show)
I Believe in Miracles Looking for God in all the wrong places by Steven Mikulan
Look, it’s Xenu: A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant
For a Catholic like comedian Julia Sweeney, the universe was created by a God whose son, Jesus, wore a shag haircut and sexy beard. For Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, the Big Guy was a galactic ruler named Xenu who murdered his billions of subjects by setting off hydrogen bombs that had been dropped into volcanoes. Clearly, there’s no such thing as a bizarre religion--or, for that matter, a bogus one. One person’s good book is another’s science-fiction novel, or so it would seem after viewing a pair of very different concepts of religion now appearing on local boards.
The preshow chatter was a tad chilling at the Powerhouse Theater, where A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant is performing: Had the show’s creators, Kyle Jarrow and Alex Timbers, gone too far in spoofing the Church of Scientology? Would the infamously litigious cult sue the daylights out of everyone connected with the show? Uneasiness--a sense of looking over one’s shoulder--enveloped the house as the lights went down.
As many already know, Scientology Pageant is the quirky, Obie Award-winning musical that opened in New York last year--quirky because a cast of children re-enacts the story of how Hubbard, a science-fiction writer who knocked about Los Angeles in the 1940s, created his church and became a millionaire. For all his yachts and wardrobe of captain’s blazers, however, Hubbard never shook the image of a lamprey-mouthed grifter who’d stumbled onto the mother lode of suckers offered by a postwar California obsessed with self-improvement and UFOs. Scientology is not the only faith organization based on a belief in extraterrestrials, but Hubbard had the huckster’s savvy to load his religion with high-tech-sounding nomenclature and to keep its mysteries hidden to all but a comparatively few individuals willing to pay lots of money to become initiated insiders.
Scientology Pageant’s kids portray people from Hubbard’s life and characters in his church’s mythos, all the while reciting, in a kind of nursery-rhyme deadpan, biographical moments and excerpts of his writing. From the mouths of babes, indeed.
A nativity story unfolds on David Evans Morris’ cheesy fantasy set (rainbow-colored flats painted to depict bubbles and otherworldly spires) as we encounter the birth of Hubbard (Kyle Kaplan) in a manger setting. From there we follow the inquisitive, optimistic lad who raises questions about existence that science, Buddhists and the ghost of George Washington can’t answer. During his service in WWII, Hubbard finds himself adrift on a raft in the Pacific, where he gets his first glimmer that there’s more money to be made in packaging his fantasy yarns as a religion than as penny-a-word pulp fiction.
In no time, Hubbard is spreading his own reversion-therapy gospel of casting out the "reactive mind" and becoming a "clear" who is at peace with the universe. Eventually he’s brought up on tax charges, which he deftly beats by brainwashing his accuser. In fact, Hubbard leads a charmed life because he is able to mesmerize everyone he encounters into proclaiming, "You’re right!" to which L. Ron modestly replies, "Of course I’m right!"
Scientology Pageant’s singsongy melodies, innocent lyrics and book were written by Jarrow, based on director Timbers’ original idea. What is more remarkable than the pair’s skewering of Hubbard and his church is how much of these they leave untouched--the show could be titled You’re a Good Man, L. Ron Hubbard. Still, there is something gruesomely funny about an ensemble of angelic, white-robed 8-to-13-year-olds portraying Scientologists Tom Cruise, John Travolta and Kirstie Alley during a courtroom scene in which they testify on Hubbard’s behalf. The casting of children in this predatory saga lends the evening a Lord of the Flies undertow, while their impersonation of celebrities suggests that Scientology--a mishmash of New Age patois and promises of personal success--is the perfect religion for Hollywood.
Powerhouse Theater Company’s production, like its 2003 The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World, is a beguiling blend of amateurism and blind innocence, here expertly assembled by Timbers. The funniest moment is a presentation of the church’s primal myth, narrated by Kristopher Barnett attired in a cardboard robot suit, while Molly Matzke’s Xenu commits wicked deeds wearing a tacky headdress. The evening, though, belongs to Kaplan; the young actor doesn’t invest his Hubbard character with a sinister persona but, creepier still, with an unblinking faith in his own rightness and pity for nonbelievers.
At 50 minutes, the show can only scratch an already soft target. We get no hint of Hubbard’s final years or of the grim fates that have befallen some of the church’s apostates. In the end we feel that, like the audience members in the Powerhouse’s lobby, Jarrow and Timbers were perhaps a little wary about going after Scientology too eagerly--or maybe they were afraid that the church’s tenets were just crazy enough to be true.
There’s an early moment in Julia Sweeney’s solo performance Letting Go of God in which she is visited at her Larchmont home by missionaries whose religion claims that, in 600 B.C., a race of righteous people migrated from Jerusalem to America; there, these pioneers eventually split into two warring camps, one of which was visited by Jesus after his crucifixion. Sweeney’s visitors were not Scientologists but Mormons. In fact, as she relates, "I wanted to say, ‘Don’t start with this story. Even the Scientologists know to give you a personality test before they tell you all about Xenu, the evil intergalactic overlord.’"
Sweeney’s exploration of faith begins with her seventh birthday, during which she’s told there’s no Santa Claus, but it is her adult encounter with Mormons that clues her to the fact that, viewed from a distance, all religions look rather kooky to modern eyes:
"If someone came to my door with Catholic theology, and I was hearing it for the first time and they said, ‘We believe that God impregnated a very young girl without the use of intercourse, and the fact that she was a virgin is maniacally important to us, and she eventually had a baby and he was the son of God,’ I would think that was equally ridiculous."
Sweeney grew up steeped in Irish-American Catholicism, which she embraced more as a girl’s movie fantasy than a faith--a child’s secret sanctuary of incense and Gregorian chants, guarded by meditating nuns and worldly priests. As an adult, she tried to expand her understanding of the Bible by taking a study class at a liberal Santa Monica parish, only to come face to face with a scripture that trumps Scientology when it comes to baroque imagination. Suddenly she’s confronted with the tribal barbarism of the Old Testament and the malarial visions of the New--rape, incest on the one hand, cultish mind control on the other.
One of the show’s funniest--and most blasphemous--moments is her interpretation of the Book of Revelation. As the Jefferson Airplane’s "White Rabbit" rises in the background, Sweeney takes on the voice of an LSD-addled narrator who sputters, "In Heaven, Jesus resembles a dead lamb with seven horns and seven eyes. When the gates of Hell are opened, locusts pour out with human faces, wearing tiny crowns, and they sting people with their tails."
Disillusioned by the Bible, Sweeney goes on to explore other faiths, from pantheism to Buddhism and points in between, only to reject them all. She’s at her comic best when interacting with others in her search--especially her devout parents, who, toward the story’s end, take in clueless stride Sweeney’s announcement that she no longer believes in God.
"This doesn’t mean that you aren’t going to go to Mass anymore, does it?" her mother asks.
Sweeney, who created both the endearing office drudge Mea Culpa while she was a member of the Groundlings theater company, and the androgynous character Pat on Saturday Night Live, is that rare performer who brings technical talent and contemplative powers to her live stage shows, which have included And God Said, "Ha!" and In the Family Way. Moving about Steven Young’s spare but homey set at the Hudson Backstage Theater, she quickly establishes a bond with her audience that never lets go.
Nevertheless, with a two-hour running time, her show is about 15 minutes too long--maybe even more, judging by how Sweeney seemed to rush some of the material on opening night. And while she mostly avoids the sentimental pitfalls of memoir theater, she still resorts to two emotional gimmicks--Family Album Slides and Funny Things My Daughter Said. Letting Go of God and A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant will turn out to be bruising evenings for the concerned faithful, though no one can accuse Sweeney or Jarrow and Timbers of malice. Perhaps a little sacrilege is good for the soul.
A VERY MERRY UNAUTHORIZED CHILDREN’S SCIENTOLOGY PAGEANT | Book, lyrics and music by KYLE JARROW, from a concept by ALEX TIMBERS | At the POWERHOUSE THEATER, 3116 Second St., Santa Monica | Through November 21 | (866) 633-6246
LETTING GO OF GOD | By JULIA SWEENEY | At the HUDSON BACKSTAGE THEATER, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood | Through November 21 | (323) 960-4420
Subject: PAGEANT EXTENDED ONE MONTH!
From: Dilbert Perkins <email@example.com>
Date: Sat, 06 Nov 2004 04:27:06 GMT
A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant has been extended through December 19 -- from its original run through November 21!
Subject: Run Extended to December 19th! - A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant
From: firstname.lastname@example.org (Praxis)
Date: 6 Nov 2004 06:35:49 -0800
A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant Extends in Los Angeles By Ernio Hernandez 05 Nov 2004
The Los Angeles run of the Obie Award-honored musical A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant has extended its run at the Powerhouse Theatre through Dec. 19.
The work, featuring a cast of 8 to 12-year-olds, is co-produced by Powerhouse Theatre and Les Freres Corbusier. The work opened Oct. 15 for an engagement originally slated through Nov. 21.
Tickets to A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant at the Powerhouse Theatre, 3116 Second Street (between Rose Ave. and Marine St.) in Santa Monica, CA. For more information, visit www.lesfreres.org. or www.powerhousetheatre.com.
Subject: A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant makes it into Variety magazine
From: email@example.com (Praxis)
Date: 9 Nov 2004 15:42:47 -0800
Soon to be read by all the movers and shakers in Hollywood....
A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant Posted: Tue., Nov. 9, 2004, 2:27pm PT By JULIO MARTINEZ
The artless innocence of a children's holiday pageant provides the deceptively benign backdrop for this deeply probing and ultimately disturbing query into the history of guru L. Ron Hubbard, founder of the Church of Scientology. Helmer Alex Timbers, who conceived and guided last year's Off Broadway preem of "A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant" (book, music and lyrics by Kyle Jarrow), impressively guides a 12-member cast of children through the labyrinthine life of Hubbard while evoking the poignant earnestness of callow youth who have no other agenda than to put on a show.... (Need to subscribe to see the rest)
Subject: Re: A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant makes it into Variety magazine
Date: 9 Nov 2004 15:45:59 -0800
Praxis wrote: > Soon to be read by all the movers and shakers in Hollywood....
> A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant
> Posted: Tue., Nov. 9, 2004, 2:27pm PT
> By JULIO MARTINEZ
> The artless innocence of a children's holiday pageant provides the
> deceptively benign backdrop for this deeply probing and ultimately
> disturbing query into the history of guru L. Ron Hubbard, founder of
> the Church of Scientology. Helmer Alex Timbers, who conceived and
> guided last year's Off Broadway preem of "A Very Merry Unauthorized
> Children's Scientology Pageant" (book, music and lyrics by Kyle
> Jarrow), impressively guides a 12-member cast of children through the
> labyrinthine life of Hubbard while evoking the poignant earnestness
of > callow youth who have no other agenda than to put on a show.... (Need
> to subscribe to see the rest)
Found balance of the article at http://news.yahoo.com/news?tmpl=story&u=/variety/20041109/va_th_re/a_very_merry_unauthorized_children_s_1
As the children extol in gleeful unison litany, this is the story of a "teacher, author, explorer, atomic physicist, nautical engineer, choreographer and horticulturist." The production follows the evolution of Hubbard from his early years in Montana, concentrating mostly on his rise from struggling sci-fi writer to supreme leader of a highly controversial new age religious empire.
David Evans Morris' colorful, crayon-colored backdrop of space age-like, semi-circular set pieces provides the setting.
Ever-tranquil, angel-robed Katie Ellis, 12, serves as narrator and a facile-beyond-his-years Kyle Kaplan, 13, confidently assumes the persona of Hubbard. The lighthearted nature of the pageantry is undercut, however, with dark, irreverent jabs at the organization's questionable practices, provocatively juxtaposing innocent revelry and weighty content. The children's total lack of posturing or performance awareness is what makes it all work. Timbers has even interjected awkward forgot-my-lines pauses into the narrative (especially from 8-year-old Tony Quinonez) to further underscore that these prepubescents do not comprehend the import of their words.
This perceived lack of artifice makes the production's indictment of Hubbard-inspired Dianetics and the "science" of Scientology that much more devastating. Included in the mix are show-and-tell explanations of Hubbard's notion of the divided mind (embodied by angel-faced identical twins Jessica and Nikki Haddad in matching brain outfits) and a device called the e-meter (short for electropsychometer), used to monitor the human psyche, which is demonstrated by stick puppets.
The highlight of the Hubbard-bashing is a laugh-till-it-hurts depiction of the alien Thetans, the cosmic basis for many of Scientology's core beliefs. This tale is recounted by diminutive 10-year-old Jamie Dahlke, who waddles uncomfortably onto the stage in full robot attire. The hilarity of the performance is in direct proportion to the outlandishness of the precept.
Whether justified or not, Jarrow and Timbers make no effort be fair or impartial in their indictment of a man who made a dynamic impact on society during his life and continues to do so nearly a quarter century after his death. They succeed quite impressively in communicating their agenda. The final thrust of the satirical dagger comes at the show-ending tableau as the cast is seen through a transom at the back of the theater, standing outside, holding candles and singing cheerfully as a heavy iron door slams shut, forever blocking them from the audience's view.
Musical direction, Danielle Hartnett. Sets, David Evans Morris; lights, Juliet Chia; costumes, Jennifer Rogien. Opened Oct. 15, 2004, reviewed Nov. 7; runs until Dec. 19. Running time: 50 MINS. Ensemble: Kristopher Barnett, Lauren Clinton, Jamie Dahlke, Drake E. Duenas, Nikki Haddad, Jessica Haddad, Chigoziri Ikeme, Molly Matzke, Mario Quinonez, Tony Quinonez.
<p><hr><p> Subject: YOU MUST SEE THIS SHOW!
From: Dilbert Perkins <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: Sat, 13 Nov 2004 08:16:00 GMT
Went to see "A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant" tonight. It is some the most clever and powerful theater I have seen in ages. It is so well-written it manages to pack the life story of Hubbard, the basic principles of Dianetics, and the founding of the Church of Scientology (including Xenu) in a little less than an hour.
The tone of the show is perfect. It is not mocking. Its humor is gentle and sweet -- the facts are simply presented, and therein lies the humor: the truth is really, really funny. There is a powerful scene toward the end that, quite properly and refreshingly, stirs much sympathy for the people who are members. And some telling lyrics at the end:
The snow is falling On this lonely Winter night, And for the first time Everything feels right.
This life is suffering -- Filled with doubt and filled with fear; Just don't ask questions, And everything is Clear.
It's time to celebrate, Time to open up your eyes. It's time to spread the word To the world that lies outside...
Then, through the back wall of the theater, a door opens to reveal all of the children dressed as angels and holding candles singing, unaccompanied:
Hey! It's a happy day! Hey! It's a holiday!
Repeated until the door slams closed and the theatre is left in the dark.
This is powerful, powerful stuff -- the entire audience was moved.
The show has been extended through December 19, but I was told they are selling out almost every night. Don't hesitate to see this amazing show!
Subject: Scientology skewered on stage in childish musical (Toronto Star)
From: Palinurus <email@example.com>
Date: 13 Nov 2004 12:37:28 -0500
Copyright 2004 Toronto Star Newspapers, Ltd. The Toronto Star
October 30, 2004 Saturday
SECTION: ARTS; Pg. J06
LENGTH: 389 words
HEADLINE: Scientology skewered on stage in childish musical
BYLINE: EVAN HENERSON, Los Angeles Daily News
DATELINE: LOS ANGELES
The ear-to-ear grins remain in place whether a young performer is reciting a list of L. Ron Hubbard's occupations ("author, choreographer, teacher, explorer, nautical engineer") or dutifully noting a copyright disclaimer to, presumably, keep the creators of this acidic little send- up from getting hauled into court.
Obviously the Hubbard-skewering A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant is meant to be satiric and subversive. In question is whether author-composer Kyle Jarrow and director Alex Timbers are also trying to serve up a deliberately corny and low-rent production. With children this adorable and this game (the performers range in age from 8 to 13), you can get away with quite a lot. Nobody expects perfect pitch or consistently audible voices out of kids this age, right? But maybe they should.
Pageant was a critical off-Broadway hit last November, spawning - ahem! - a soundtrack album. Britain's The Guardian reports that the Church of Scientology didn't protest last year's small production, but has taken issue with the revival in L.A., where the church has ties with some of Hollywood's most recognizable faces, including Tom Cruise and John Travolta. The church reportedly urged editors at the Los Angeles Times to reconsider running a story about the production.
There are some witty moments in the Pageant that Timbers stages at the Powerhouse Theatre in Santa Monica. And cuteness certainly abounds. Were these your children, presumably you'd overlook the production shabbiness and cheer, and guffaw and applaud at every available moment.
If these were not your children, however, you might scratch your head over having paid $25 for an hour-long show about a man who the play makes out to be a charlatan and a swindler. Even with Kirstie Alley, Travolta and Cruise only making cameo appearances, L. Ron Hubbard and his Dianetics are easy targets. More so even than Damon and Affleck of Matt & Ben, Scientology is fish-in-barrel time.
The performers are anything but polished, which is undeniably part of their charm. Kyle Kaplan, "selected" to play L. Ron (the L stands for a bunch of different things throughout the show) has plenty of pluck, and Katie Ellis has a serenity beyond her years as the wise angel/narrator.
The Pageant itself? There are richer holiday traditions of which to partake.
LOAD-DATE: October 30, 2004
Subject: L. Ron Hubbard's life, set to singsong (LA Times)
From: Palinurus <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: 13 Nov 2004 12:43:06 -0500
Copyright 2004 Los Angeles Times All Rights Reserved Los Angeles Times
October 22, 2004 Friday Home Edition
SECTION: CALENDAR; Calendar Desk; Part E; Pg. 27
LENGTH: 376 words
HEADLINE: REVIEW; L. Ron Hubbard's life, set to singsong; The emphasis in 'A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant' is on satire, with gleeful results.
BYLINE: David C. Nichols, Special to The Times
"Now the sun will shine,
"Now we'll be just fine.
"We have got the science of the mind."
This incessantly reprised refrain fails to convey the analytical anarchy and reactive hysteria that suffuses "A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant" at the Powerhouse Theatre. In its West Coast premiere, this Obie-winning paean to the late L. Ron Hubbard and his, um, legacy plays a wee satiric notion to its zenith, with lethally gleeful results.
A co-production with Manhattan-based troupe Les Freres Corbusier, whose original staging was the surprise New York hit of 2003, "Pageant's" premise could not be simpler. In an airtight hour, 10 children reenact Hubbard's biography and theories with the singsong, Casio-accompanied bounce of countless grade school spectaculars.
After New Age chords sound, Juliet Chia's lights locate an Angelic Girl (Katherine Ellis) on David Evans Morris' wonderful Day-Glo setting. Other diminutive supplicants appear, in monkish robes of homegrown aspect (designed by Jennifer Rogien), to deliver the impossibly upbeat "Hey! It's a Happy Day."
Out of their ranks comes the founder (Kyle Kaplan), who takes his vision quest straight to the bank. The mix of pastorale, Dianetics demo and Bill Melendez "Peanuts" special leaves irony to its audience, ending on a coup de theatre that is thrilling and chilling.
Creators Alex Timbers (concept and direction) and Kyle Jarrow (book, music and lyrics) control their pint-sized conceit with clear-minded subversive purpose. Under Danielle Hartnett's musical auditing, the acolytes are amazing.
Kaplan reveals sage comic chops, as does Ellis' dry cherub. Identical twins Nikki and Jessica Haddad make priceless halves of the brain; Anthony Quinonez's monk and Kristopher Barnett's robot child threaten the kidneys. Jamie Dahlke, Chigoziri Ikeme, Molly Matzke and Mario Quinonez complete a rip-roaring roster of future stars. Their guileless irreverence lingers long after the curtain falls on this instant cult classic.
'A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant'
Where: Powerhouse Theatre, 3116 2nd St., Santa Monica
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays
Ends: Nov. 21
Contact: (866) 633-6246 or www.powerhousetheatre.com
Running time: 1 hour
GRAPHIC: PHOTO: HIS VISION: Katherine Ellis portrays Angelic Girl and Kyle Kaplan plays Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. PHOTOGRAPHER: Kevin Merrill Powerhouse Theatre
LOAD-DATE: October 22, 2004