Saturday, December 20, 2008

Friday Night in Tempe: The Stray Cat Theatre's "A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant"

Warmly ensconced in our Apache Junction, Arizona, winter home this week, we are glad to be missing the snow back in Brooklyn. Although we are natives of the borough, having spent 26 winters in Florida, we're somewhat worse for wear in cold weather. And we are the ones who usually has to shovel our stoop at Dumbo Books HQ in Williamsburg.

But here in Arizona, we are resting our sacroiliac and enjoying the big sky and the view of Superstition Mountain from our backyard, the mild Sonoran Desert weather, and the pleasant sights around our neighborhood: majestic saguaro cacti and palm trees, jackrabbits and quail, the lanolin-like smell in the early morning, the many foreclosure signs on our block, the mostly vacant strip shopping centers with empty big boxes that once housed a Circuit City, a Mervyn's, or a Linen 'n' Things. Yes, we love Brooklyn, but there's nothing like the vast empty spaces of the West!

We also love the many cool, ironic, hipsterish things we do in Williamsburg and Greenpoint and Bushwick and the Lower East Side, but at our advanced age, it does become wearing sometimes and we are glad that we also live in rural Apache Junction (in Bad Santa, a little boy asks the Phoenix mall Santa Claus played by Billy Bob Thornton what the North Pole is like, and he tells the kid it's a lot like Apache Junction -- we were the only person at our showing of the film in a Plantation, Florida, megaplex to laugh at that line), where entertainment is middlebrow, mainstream, all-American, and, frankly, pretty corny.

So we were relieved to spend some of our Chanukah gelt on tickets for a wholesome holiday pageant put on by 8- to 12-year-olds. We recall with fondness our memory of a free classical music performance for Christmas we attended exactly a decade ago at the Chandler Performing Arts Center. Although most of the crowd was probably pink-faced elderly people, we were pleased to see two well-scrubbed, clean-cut, Mormon-looking teenage boys in the seats immediately in front of us.

What a pleasure to see youth interested in classical music! They were so moved by the strains of Handel, in fact, that as soon as the house lights went down, these boys' very first movement was to nuzzle each other, discreetly, until by the time the orchestra got around to Beethoven, they were making out pretty heavily. As intermission began, they were busily straightening their ties and clearing their throats.

Last night we similarly got to enjoy wholesome entertainment at the Tempe Performing Arts Center, where we saw "A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant" put on by the Stray Cat Theatre.

It was heartwarming to see kids so innocent in their beliefs, acting and singing and dancing their brains out so earnestly. Sometimes sincerity beats irony, and the young cast performed beautifully, bringing at least one tear to our eye (Bell's palsy was responsible for the rest).

Since we're not professional drama critics like our old friend Peter Filichia of the Newark Star-Ledger or "the ultimate critic," our friend the late Stewart Klein, beloved from channel 5 when it was still WNEW-TV (he let us hold his Emmy) - there's no point in us trying to give reasoned criticism of this show other than to tell you we haven't enjoyed any recent theater performance in New York as much as we did "A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant" and to say that we think the very young actor Maxx Carlisle-King is God. And we will from now on only spell Brittney with two T's. . .

Okay, we're sentimentalists sometimes. Now back to Brooklyn irony. Here's a roundup of what some of the local yokels who saw the show had to say. Por ejemplo, let's start with the reviewer for Phoenix New Times and on KJZZ-FM, Robrt L. Pela (no, I spelled his name right, as you can see on the cover of his excellent book on the life and work of John Waters):

Robrt L. Pela:
About three minutes into Stray Cat Theatre's newest production, I found myself thinking: This can't be really happening. When you go to see it — and you must, if you do nothing else this holiday season, go see this astonishing stage production — you will almost certainly experience the same sense of delighted confusion.

I was aware that A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant was performed entirely by children, who would be telling the story of how the late religious leader L. Ron Hubbard created Scientology, the controversial science fiction-based religion most prominently associated with movie stars John Travolta and Tom Cruise. But I found myself wondering how director Gary Minyard, who deserves high and endless praise for pulling off this improbable entertainment, explained irony and camp to people who only recently stopped believing in Santa Claus.

It helps that Scientology Pageant's two leads are so talented. Tiny Brittney Peters, dressed in a snow-white gown and a tinfoil halo as a narrator named Angelic Girl, sings with the sort of big, clear voice rarely found in performers even twice her age. She reads wink-and-nudge comic lines without so much as a smirk, another rare talent in any child performer.

I typically don't review the performances of children, but Maxx Carlisle-King is no child. He is a peculiar force of nature — one with perfect pitch and the ability to sell comic lines like a pro — trapped in a kid's body. There wasn't a single precocious moment in the boy's performance, and I became convinced, watching him, that if he were 20 years older, I'd still have been awed by his stage skills

The supporting cast is perfect, too, in part because they are essentially playing themselves: Kids playing kids in an oddball holiday show, sometimes muttering their lines while having to haul cheesy set pieces on and off stage. It's a keen trick of playwright Kyle Jarrow's to include mediocrity as an element in his play, but what's more impressive about the playwright's material is that it presents both Hubbard and Scientology rather earnestly, and rarely riffs on them. . .

Ken Lippard on The Lippard Blog:
The play was a special treat for those of us who already know something about Scientology and the life of L. Ron Hubbard.

The production tells the story of L. Ron Hubbard's life ("writer, explorer, nuclear physicist ...") and how he came to develop Dianetics and Scientology, in the form of a children's holiday pageant. Cheesy props and frequent costume changes are used to portray rapid changes of location, from Hawaii to New York to China. Much of what is presented is accurate--Hubbard's birthplace, some of his claims about his life, and especially the content of Dianetics and Scientology. A few liberties are taken in the story of his life, though fewer than Hubbard himself and contemporary Scientologists take in describing his achievements. While there are countless amusing and disturbing events of Hubbard's actual life that could have been used for comic relief but were omitted, we were surprised at how much they managed to pack into a short show.

Some person on "ShowUp: Greater Phoenix's Guide to Arts & Entertainment," who gives it five stars:
This holiday season join Stray Cat as a jubilant cast of children celebrate the controversial Church of Scientology in uplifting pageantry and song. The actual teachings of Scientology are explained and dissected against the candy-colored backdrop of a traditional nativity play. An ensemble cast of grade school children portraying Tom Cruise, Kirstie Alley, John Travolta, and other less starry Scientologists, tells the story of L. Ron Hubbard's meteoric rise from struggling science fiction writer to supreme leader of a highly-profitable New Age religious empire. Avant-garde performance art and children's theatre meet in one of the funniest and most bewildering holiday shows you will ever see.

And for the last local yokel, we'd like to thank the link from our friend the brilliant, talented and very cute Charles Jensen, whom we know from ASU but who's now the director of The Writer's Center in Bethesda, probably the finest place of its kind in the whole country. (Instead of Dianetics, you'd be better off reading Charles Jensen's haunting The Strange Case of Maribel Dixon and his forthcoming The First Risk.)

Anyway, Charlie's blog Kinemapoetics pointed us to this review by Chris Curcio at Curtain Up Phoenix:
Huge praise goes to director Gary Minyard who crafts miracles with these young but amazingly polished troupers.

Minyard asks a lot of his cast. They must learn Jarrow’s tricky satiric puns and off-center comic barbs and deliver them with non-stop but slyly skewed humor kids this age rarely understand. The audience laughed uproariously at the performance I attended. Minyard also expects them to learn cuttingly savage songs that further question the religion, some tricky but cute choreography, clever but intricate staging, handle myriad costume changes, shift scenery, and use endless props. That the cast brings this challenge off with nary a misstep is quite an achievement.

Jarrow picks and pokes at Hubbard, his teachings, and how Hubbard’s religious thinking has turned him into a wealthy man. The script asks all the questions you have ever had about Scientology. That this young cast can deliver this tongue-in-cheek commentary with such delicious abandon is quite a credit. That this young ensemble probably doesn’t fully understand the heady satire makes this exemplary production even more amazing.

Maxx Carlisle-King is poised and always in control as L. Ron. This young actor’s theatrical spark and comic flair suggests a long and successful stage career. No less sharp is Brittney Peters’ Angelic Girl. This character functions as the show’s narrator as she guides the ensemble through its questioning and probing of this unusual religion that inspires its followers by removing their emotions and relying on their analytical ability that uses weird and twisted logic. Everyone in the cast, though, has at least one standout moment.

“A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant” isn’t for those who want a traditional holiday show but if pointed but thoughtful comic probing delivered by talented troupers is your thing, this show will delight. “A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant” continues through December 20 at the old Tempe Performing Arts Center in downtown Tempe. For tickets, call the Stray Cat Theatre box office at 480-820-8022 or go online at

December 20 is tonight, so days are getting are short!

(Many thanks for some of these pics to John (iaincaradoc on Flickr), a very talented photographer, whose whole wonderful set of 39 photos from the show can be seen at his Flickr stream.)

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