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?
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 use to. The production’s irony-rich situation — the biography of Scientology founder 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.
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An off-Broadway sleeper, “Scientology Pageant” was called the “the gutsiest gimmick in New York theater for 2003” by Ben Brantley of the New York Times. After an extended run (moving from a shabby storefront theater to the respectable John Houseman), the hourlong musical capped off 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 John Travolta, Kirstie Alley and Tom Cruise (all of whom appear as characters in the piece) 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’s 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 a lot 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 rehearsals in Los Angeles, playwright-composer Jarrow and director Timbers seem a bit more nervous about how their respectful mockery will be received. Yale grads in their mid-20s, 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 a lot 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 by Hubbard. “He teaches that when you’re a child, life is great, but as you get older, things start to seem awful,” the playwright explains. “You think that 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 the fear of provoking the 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” 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, he 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 theater,” 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 a lot of people.”
Grand Guignol and dance
The two have been collaborating since college, specializing in deadpan send-ups of historical figures. Timbers founded with two other college chums Les Freres Corbusier, a theater company whose aesthetic mix combines Grand Guignol, eccentric dance, found texts and untested historical theories (for example, that Benjamin Franklin was the Antichrist).
The company’s name (sans the customary accent on the French word for “brothers”) comes from a dance theater piece Timbers created as a senior at Yale that was, in his own words, “skewering the pretensions of academia.” The subject matter varied from the Swiss architect Le Corbusier to the history of higher mathematics.
Jarrow has been routinely invited by Timbers to contribute to the company’s postmodern high jinks. The project that put them on the map in New York, “President Harding is a Rock Star,” featured a coke-snorting Harding prancing around the Oval Office in leather pants and delivering dubious political speeches as rock ballads. Here the duo didn’t so much deconstruct American history as splice it into a surreal music video.
But neither of them was prepared for the way “Scientology Pageant” has taken off. The show found a New York audience willing to move from the tongue-in-cheek children’s pageant concept to something that became startlingly adult.
“One of the things that Alex and I are most happy about accomplishing is getting people our age psyched about theater, and not just our buddies,” says Jarrow. “We’re creating work for a generation that grew up with ‘Seinfeld’ and MTV’s ‘Real World.’ “
Irony, in short, is a starting point for these innovators, not a destination. “We want to acknowledge our theatricality,” says Timbers. “But we don’t want to just be campy when there are emotional depths.”
‘A Very Merry Unauthorized 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