Valley troupe stages a child-acted satire with Scientology at the core - East Valley Tribune: Get Out

Valley troupe stages a child-acted satire with Scientology at the core

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Posted: Wednesday, December 3, 2008 1:51 pm | Updated: 10:19 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

The young cast of the Valley’s newest holiday pageant is all atwitter. Opening night is only a week away, and for the first time, the pre-teen actors are getting a glimpse of their costumes.

SLIDESHOW: "A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant"

The young cast of the Valley’s newest holiday pageant is all atwitter. Opening night is only a week away, and for the first time, the pre-teen actors are getting a glimpse of their costumes.

SLIDESHOW: "A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant"

But something is profoundly askew at Tempe’s Stray Cat Theatre. Where one might expect to find plastic manger animals, kid-sized shepherd garb and other classic nativity accoutrements, one instead finds psychedelic snail heads, DayGlo space gowns and something that looks like the love child of a Muppet and a lie detector machine.

One of the girls, wearing mantis-eyed alien sunglasses, greets a visitor. “Boo!” she squeaks. Nearby, a boy in a leather bomber jacket hones his Tom Cruise impersonation.

It is, to be sure, sacrilege, the same kind of inspired musical sacrilege that gave us “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut” and, in this case, an off-Broadway satire about the origins of Scientology told in the aesthetic style of a children’s holiday pageant. With an all-kid cast.

The play is called “A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant,” and according to director Gary Minyard, it’s a fairly faithful, if extremely abridged, account of L. Ron Hubbard’s journey from struggling sci-fi writer to New Age strongman. It portrays Hubbard’s Buddha-like travels across the Far East as a young man and his epiphany as a U.S. Navy sailor during World War II.

Written and composed by New York playwright Kyle Jarrow, it also makes light of the E-meter, the controversial device used by Scientologists to “audit” prospective members, and Xenu, the 75 million-year-old intergalactic villain who purportedly resides in the deepest layer of Scientology dogma. (In the play, the E-meter is a talking puppet and Xenu is played by Tempe sisters Katelynn and Sierra Eldridge, who adorably lurch together like a drunken bag lady.)

In all, 11 Valley children committed to the musical’s rigorous rehearsal schedule.

“It’s an adult play performed by kids for adults,” Minyard says. “It takes the literal facts of (Hubbard’s) life and projects them through the candy-coated lens of a nativity play.”

To preserve the amateurish, barely-rehearsed quality of a regular children’s holiday pageant, Minyard discouraged his young cast (and their parents) from brushing up on Scientology lore.

“That’s the charm of the piece,” says Minyard, who has directed shows for Scottsdale’s Greasepaint Youtheatre. “I’m struggling to find a balance, hoping the kids have a great time, but also for the secret adult part of this comedy to work. The kids can’t know why it’s funny.”

If naivety is critical to the play’s success, Minyard seems to be in good shape. With a week of rehearsal left before their debut, none the tyke actors interviewed professes even a cursory knowledge of Scientology. They also don’t seem particularly opinionated about Scientology’s legendary stable of celebrity adherents.

The amateurish, happenstance quality of children’s school plays is also critical to the comedy, according to Minyard. Early on, he was inspired by the scene in the British ensemble film “Love Actually” in which a child arrives at a nativity play in a lobster outfit. Ergo, the snail head in this play.

“It’s definitely a send-up of Christmas pageants that parents get dragged to,” admits Ron May, who as creative director of Stray Cat Theatre has steered the company toward “comedies that are a lot snarkier, and shows that are a lot darker” than mainstream theater fare. The theater is now in its seventh season.

The play is not intended as a sideways attack on the story of Christ’s birth, claims Jarrow. Rather, the show is a gentle critique of “organized religion in general.”

“It raises the question about searching and looking for answers — something we all do,” he explains. “Where the wondering and searching stops, that’s when you run into the tricky stuff.”

Nor is the play a clubbing of the Church of Scientology and its controversial, sometimes bizarre tenets, insists Minyard.

“We’re not making fun of Scientology. That’s where people are confused,” he says, temporarily forgetting the talking-puppet E-meter on the table behind him.

It stands to reason that most Scientologists would disagree with Minyard’s assessment. While it was being staged in New York in 2004, the church sent a letter to Jarrow asking him to desist with the production. Considering the church’s litigious history, it wasn’t a letter he disregarded lightly. The church has brought lawsuits against countless critics, and in 2007, British journalist John Sweeney claimed that he was harassed and surveilled by Scientology operatives while making an unflattering documentary about the church.

Scientologists may be particularly sensitive to the staging of Jarrow’s play in the Valley. Hubbard lived in Phoenix in the early 1950s during the formative years of the Church, delivering the first speeches that eventually would evolve into his self-help Dianetics philosophy.

There have been charges of Scientololgy-bashing. May says the production received its first piece of “hate mail” from a fellow member of the Valley theater scene who accused the producers of religious bigotry. (Though recognized as a tax-exempt religion in the United States, Scientology still lacks recognition in many countries, including Germany and Great Britain.)

“The play definitely isn’t pro-Scientology,” allows May, who adds that he and the other producers will keep an eye out for “creepy anonymous protesters who will show up and try to scare the kids.”

The play may represent a broadening tolerance not of religion, but of religious criticism as mainstream entertainment. Last month, “South Park” creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker — who memorably parodied Scientology and Tom Cruise in their “Trapped in a Closet” episode — announced they would be producing a religion-themed movie musical of their own.

The subject: Mormonism. Would Stray Cat Theatre ever do a stage version of such a movie?

“Definitely, if it’s good enough,” May says. “We would never do something that was outright hateful, but all religions — Catholicism, Judaism — should be open to criticism. Scientology is just easier because it’s more controversial.”

If you go

What: “A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant”

Where: Tempe Performing Arts Center, 132 E. Sixth St.

When: Play runs Friday, Dec. 5 through Saturday, Dec. 20. Showtimes vary.

How much: $10 to $20

Info: Visit straycattheatre.org or call (480) 820-8022

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