If the children of Scientologists in their youthful innocence performed a stage musical in the mode of a Christmas pageant about their religious movement that has driven people to bankruptcy and suicide, complete with cheesy cardboard props and scenery, the result would presumably be this black humor extravaganza. The satire consists largely in simply exhibiting the bizarre and secret – but reportedly real – beliefs of Scientology, including a demonstration by puppets of the electrical “E-meter” device claimed to be capable of measuring spiritual energy and the mythical Xenu who, as head of the Galactic Confederacy 75 million years ago, killed 178 billion people by luring them in under the pretext of an income tax investigation and drugging them next to volcanoes into which he placed hydrogen bombs.
While from such a bare description this may seem about as entertaining as being forced to watch Battlefield Earth while subjected to the Ludovico Technique from A Clockwork Orange, the audience laughter was so hard and so consistent that it often drowned out the actors. The genius of the show is in presenting the “pageant” with mock earnestness using a cast whose oldest members are in junior high school, although in most cases already with substantial acting experience. Seeing a group of children singing and dancing to songs about brainwashing and mind control is truly unsettling – not least when they all shout commands together in unison such as “STAND UP!” and “SIT DOWN!” with which the audience, amazingly, complies.
The uniformly excellent cast is headed by the extraordinarily gifted 8th grader Jenny Sullivan as Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, who is presented as a Christlike figure beginning with birth in a manger, heralded by a winged angel (8th grader Ally Gower). We see Hubbard stranded at sea during World War II with fellow survivor Donald (Theo Bazin), who later turns up as an IRS agent investigating the movement for a litany of charges along with IRS goons (7th grader Lauren St. Jean and 5th grader Charlotte McKenna) before being brainwashed to join. Eventually Hubbard develops his “Dianetics” self-help theory of the dichotomous parts of the mind, played in brain costume as the “Reactive Mind” (6th grader Madison Durfee) and “Analytical Mind” (6th grader Danielle Durfee). Celebrity devotees John Travolta and Tom Cruise (both 5th grader Sam Dumas) make an appearance, with Cruise’s ex-wife and daughter, who have since distanced themselves from both Cruise and Scientology, represented by sock puppets. Celebrity supporter Kirstie Alley (5th grader Ariana Bianco) testifies to being cured of drug addiction, enabling her to star in the television show Fat Actress. The ensemble is rounded out by 3rd grader Edie Crawford and 1st grader Lana Lancombe, including delivery of the prefatory legal disclaimer. Much of the scenery is provided by outstanding digital projection designed by Michael Commendatore and Adam O’Brien, a wise choice by director David Tessier.
The viciousness of the satire is maintained by presenting Scientology as if the children putting on the “pageant” are oblivious to its absurdity, having all been brainwashed. It is possible to go too far with such an approach; it would be unimaginable, for example, to set a children’s play-within-a-play in Theresienstadt. Nevertheless, Scientology is an easy target because it is essentially already self-satire.
While this is a show performed by children, it is not intended for children. Anyone who thinks that The Onion is too restrained and not bloodthirsty enough will love this show.
A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant, The Wilbury Theatre Group, 393 Broad Street, Providence RI 02907, 401-400-7100, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
Thu, Fri, Sat (Dec 12, 13, 14, 19, 20, 21) at 7:30 pm, Sun (Dec 22) at 3:00 pm. About 60 minutes in one act. Thu performances feature a “talk back” session afterward with special guests.