Last Sunday afternoon, I drove downtown to see Theatre on the Square’s production of “A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant.” The book, music, and lyrics are by Kyle Jarrow, from a concept by Alex Timbers. Ron Spencer is the director at TOTS.
This is one bizarre show. Bizarre…but fun. And enjoyably, surprisingly, educational.
If you are a parent, I imagine it will remind you of every “Why We Celebrate Thanksgiving” assembly you ever attended at your child’s school. It comes complete with a mom who walks out through the set even after the house has opened so that everyone will realize that she is the mother of one of the actors. (But I don’t find her listed in the program, so maybe she really just didn’t know any better.)
Even if you are not a parent, if you are Christian, this show will remind you of every Nativity pageant about which you ever said, “Aww! How adorable” at church.
But it will also remind you of every religious cult story you ever heard. And it will make you very aware of how your own religion could just as easily be turned into a cult, given the right conditions. One person’s gospel truth is another person’s “Do they really believe this stuff?”
As I say, it’s a bizarre, unsettling mix. But…appealing, somehow, too.
Maybe the unsettling quality is what makes it so appealing?
The actors in this show are all children except for one teenager, a 13-year-old. They are all so little, so young, and so CUTE! But they do an impressive job of speaking their complicated lines clearly, which allows the show to go beyond cute. This is the tongue-in-cheek, but based on fact, story of L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of the Church of Scientology, and how he came to have millions of loyal followers.
It fascinated me!
Claire Cassidy plays L. Ron himself – perfect casting for a natural leader. Claire carries the show musically with her strong, beautiful singing voice and her stage confidence. She leads the other children, indirectly and directly (“Let’s sing!”), but she is never pushy or show-offy about it. Except, of course, whenever a character resists L. Ron’s teachings.
In fact, in one song, Claire and another girl, Emmi Malcolmson, “share” the singing in a way that touched my heart and made me shudder, both.
Emmi is on the top platform of the set under a tightly focused light. She sings the story of how her character, Annie, had sunk so low as to be stealing food from dumpsters…and how L. Ron and Scientology saved her life. The emotions Emmi conveys through her face and body are quite moving. The emotions she conveys through her voice…
But it is not her voice. Claire stands in the shadows below, with her back to the audience, and sings while Emmi mouths the words silently. They are in perfect unison. If I hadn’t already known what Claire’s voice sounded like, I would have thought she was just looking up at Emmi and listening. I was touched by the generosity each girl showed towards the other in getting their their parts to match up so precisely.
But just before the end of the song, the lights come up on Claire/L.Ron. She turns, and we see that it has actually been her singing, all along. At the end, she smiles for a moment, warmly and knowingly. I flashed on L. Ron thinking he was truly helping people by making them give up their own voices to serve him. It made me shudder.
The other children handle their solo singing lines well enough, and sing quite well as a group. Their strengths, however, are in the ways that they exuberantly portray their many characters. Each child (except for Claire) plays at least three people. I will just mention one each, but they were all funny:
Paige Cassidy plays a fast-moving, fast-talking New Yorker glued to her cell phone. She is almost too busy to talk to L. Ron at first when he is traveling the world in search of the secrets to life.
Robert Webster III plays Donald, an upright, earnest military buddy who tries to tell L. Ron that he is full of nonsense.
Levi Sebree and Mesa Sebree play the Analytical Mind and the Reactive Mind, respectively. L.Ron would have us cut away the Reactive Mind, because who needs emotions? (Um, I do.) The girls come out as two connected, swirled piles of brain matter, but after their Scientology treatment, Reactive Mind dances away. (Costumes by Stephen Hollenbeck. Dresser: Diane Cassidy.)
Zachary Earls plays celebrity witness John Travolta. His “Staying Alive” moves are a hoot.
And tiny Morgan Patrick-Roof plays the Angelic Girl, who is a sort of narrator. She is very sweet, very smart, very matter-of-fact…an irresistible combination.
The children are accompanied by a two-person adult orchestra, with music and vocal director Roger Smith on keyboards and Gary Pottinger on percussion. The orchestra is satisfyingly visible in a pocket at the side of the stage, but never overpowering in terms of sound.
This is definitely a show that will be best appreciated by adults, although there is nothing in it that is inappropriate for children, including the run time, which is only an hour. More importantly, there is nothing about it that makes fun of or otherwise puts down or exploits the children who are performing in it. Adults are free to relax and laugh.
Parents may have to explain why this is a parody and their family’s religion is not, but I imagine that sort of question comes up often in a parent’s life.
The cheerful, blue-and-white set reminded me of a cruise ship. Later in the show I learned that L. Ron takes his best followers on indoctrination cruises! I felt like an insider, too, as we learned about the alien visitors. I loved the visual effect of people’s souls leaving their bodies in ancient times. Very cool.
The set includes some clever portholes that double as puppet stages. Sometimes there is a gentle sound of waves. Or explosions.
(Technical direction by James Trofatter. Thomas Turner is the stage manager. Set designed, constructed, and decorated by assistant director Alvin Sangsuwangul and James Trofatter. Lighting and sound design by Ron Spencer. John Fullam is the light operator. Ron Spencer is the sound operator.)
There is even a Church of Scientology “e-meter” to gauge people’s “clarity.” (Properties by Diane McGuire and Peter Finney.)
After the show, I got to chat with the director, Ron Spencer. He is “Ron L.” to Hubbard’s “L. Ron.”
Spencer said he thought L.Ron had had a good idea – don’t let the reactive part of your brain take over – but it went bad. Hubbard went too far with it, and misused it. Spencer’s comment made me think of the many ways that Christians have misinterpreted or ignored Christ’s basic message of “Love one another.”
Spencer said he had just stumbled across the script to this show, but that his “ties” to the Church of Scientology go way back. Years ago, a mentally unstable friend told him that she had found something wonderful. She wanted him to go and be tested, too. So he did.
“You had the slinkys clamped on to your hands?” I asked.
“Well, there weren’t any slinkys on the real e-meter,” Spencer said, laughing. “We just thought that would look funny on our version of it.” (It does!)
But he did get hooked up to a real e-meter…and whatever the results were, the Scientologists weren’t interested. Spencer said they prey on people who, like his friend, are mentally unbalanced. Apparently he was too well-balanced to be worth their while.
Spencer told me that Hubbard is often quoted for saying, “The easiest way to make a million dollars is to start a religion.” Spencer said, “Maybe I will start one. I will call it ‘The church of the God who wasn’t.’ Of course there is Someone…but I want people to be accountable in the here and now.”
In other words, to love each other and treat each other with kindness and respect because that is the way to be a person, not because we’re afraid that Someone will get angry with us if we don’t. (I’m paraphrasing, and maybe extrapolating from, what Spencer said.)
“What was it like working with an all-child cast?” I asked. “Was this the first time for you to work with kids?”
“‘First time for a cast this young,” he answered. “They’re great!” Spencer said they had talked about the fact that they were making fun of a religion. “I never talk down to them.”
After we finished talking, I overheard one of the parents say to Spencer, “You are so good with the kids! When you retire (from TOTS) you should open a performing arts center! (and work with kids fulltime.)”
But I hope that Spencer keeps running the quirky Theatre on the Square for years to come.
In his curtain talk, Spencer mentioned “Mass Hysteria,” a huge block party that will be held on Massachusetts Avenue from 6pm to midnight on Saturday, September 20, 2008. It will include music, games, food, magic, gambling, and more, and will be a fundraiser for the theatre.
“A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant” continues through Saturday, August 16, 2008. For more information or to make a reservation, please call 317-685-8687. By the way, TOTS has installed new hand rails to make it easier to get up and down the aisles of the main stage space.
Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com