|Photo by Kevin Merrill|
For a Catholic like comedian Julia Sweeney, the universe was created by a God whose son, Jesus, wore a shag haircut and sexy beard. For Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, the Big Guy was a galactic ruler named Xenu who murdered his billions of subjects by setting off hydrogen bombs that had been dropped into volcanoes. Clearly, there’s no such thing as a bizarre religion — or, for that matter, a bogus one. One person’s good book is another’s science-fiction novel, or so it would seem after viewing a pair of very different concepts of religion now appearing on local boards.
The preshow chatter was a tad chilling at the Powerhouse Theater, where A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant is performing: Had the show’s creators, Kyle Jarrow and Alex Timbers, gone too far in spoofing the Church of Scientology? Would the infamously litigious cult sue the daylights out of everyone connected with the show? Uneasiness — a sense of looking over one’s shoulder — enveloped the house as the lights went down.
As many already know, Scientology Pageant is the quirky, Obie Award–winning musical that opened in New York last year — quirky because a cast of children re-enacts the story of how Hubbard, a science-fiction writer who knocked about Los Angeles in the 1940s, created his church and became a millionaire. For all his yachts and wardrobe of captain’s blazers, however, Hubbard never shook the image of a lamprey-mouthed grifter who’d stumbled onto the mother lode of suckers offered by a postwar California obsessed with self-improvement and UFOs. Scientology is not the only faith organization based on a belief in extraterrestrials, but Hubbard had the huckster’s savvy to load his religion with high-tech-sounding nomenclature and to keep its mysteries hidden to all but a comparatively few individuals willing to pay lots of money to become initiated insiders.
Scientology Pageant’s kids portray people from Hubbard’s life and characters in his church’s mythos, all the while reciting, in a kind of nursery-rhyme deadpan, biographical moments and excerpts of his writing. From the mouths of babes, indeed.
A nativity story unfolds on David Evans Morris’ cheesy fantasy set (rainbow-colored flats painted to depict bubbles and otherworldly spires) as we encounter the birth of Hubbard (Kyle Kaplan) in a manger setting. From there we follow the inquisitive, optimistic lad who raises questions about existence that science, Buddhists and the ghost of George Washington can’t answer. During his service in WWII, Hubbard finds himself adrift on a raft in the Pacific, where he gets his first glimmer that there’s more money to be made in packaging his fantasy yarns as a religion than as penny-a-word pulp fiction.
In no time, Hubbard is spreading his own reversion-therapy gospel of casting out the “reactive mind” and becoming a “clear” who is at peace with the universe. Eventually he’s brought up on tax charges, which he deftly beats by brainwashing his accuser. In fact, Hubbard leads a charmed life because he is able to mesmerize everyone he encounters into proclaiming, “You’re right!” to which L. Ron modestly replies, “Of course I’m right!”
Scientology Pageant’s singsongy melodies, innocent lyrics and book were written by Jarrow, based on director Timbers’ original idea. What is more remarkable than the pair’s skewering of Hubbard and his church is how much of these they leave untouched — the show could be titled You’re a Good Man, L. Ron Hubbard. Still, there is something gruesomely funny about an ensemble of angelic, white-robed 8-to-13-year-olds portraying Scientologists Tom Cruise, John Travolta and Kirstie Alley during a courtroom scene in which they testify on Hubbard’s behalf. The casting of children in this predatory saga lends the evening a Lord of the Flies undertow, while their impersonation of celebrities suggests that Scientology — a mishmash of New Age patois and promises of personal success — is the perfect religion for Hollywood.
Powerhouse Theater Company’s production, like its 2003 The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World, is a beguiling blend of amateurism and blind innocence, here expertly assembled by Timbers. The funniest moment is a presentation of the church’s primal myth, narrated by Kristopher Barnett attired in a cardboard robot suit, while Molly Matzke’s Xenu commits wicked deeds wearing a tacky headdress. The evening, though, belongs to Kaplan; the young actor doesn’t invest his Hubbard character with a sinister persona but, creepier still, with an unblinking faith in his own rightness and pity for nonbelievers.
At 50 minutes, the show can only scratch an already soft target. We get no hint of Hubbard’s final years or of the grim fates that have befallen some of the church’s apostates. In the end we feel that, like the audience members in the Powerhouse’s lobby, Jarrow and Timbers were perhaps a little wary about going after Scientology too eagerly — or maybe they were afraid that the church’s tenets were just crazy enough to be true.
There’s an early moment in Julia Sweeney’s solo performance Letting Go of God in which she is visited at her Larchmont home by missionaries whose religion claims that, in 600 B.C., a race of righteous people migrated from Jerusalem to America; there, these pioneers eventually split into two warring camps, one of which was visited by Jesus after his crucifixion. Sweeney’s visitors were not Scientologists but Mormons. In fact, as she relates, “I wanted to say, ‘Don’t start with this story. Even the Scientologists know to give you a personality test before they tell you all about Xenu, the evil intergalactic overlord.’”
Sweeney’s exploration of faith begins with her seventh birthday, during which she’s told there’s no Santa Claus, but it is her adult encounter with Mormons that clues her to the fact that, viewed from a distance, all religions look rather kooky to modern eyes:
“If someone came to my door with Catholic theology, and I was hearing it for the first time and they said, ‘We believe that God impregnated a very young girl without the use of intercourse, and the fact that she was a virgin is maniacally important to us, and she eventually had a baby and he was the son of God,’ I would think that was equally ridiculous.”
Sweeney grew up steeped in Irish-American Catholicism, which she embraced more as a girl’s movie fantasy than a faith — a child’s secret sanctuary of incense and Gregorian chants, guarded by meditating nuns and worldly priests. As an adult, she tried to expand her understanding of the Bible by taking a study class at a liberal Santa Monica parish, only to come face to face with a scripture that trumps Scientology when it comes to baroque imagination. Suddenly she’s confronted with the tribal barbarism of the Old Testament and the malarial visions of the New — rape, incest on the one hand, cultish mind control on the other.
One of the show’s funniest — and most blasphemous — moments is her interpretation of the Book of Revelation. As the Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” rises in the background, Sweeney takes on the voice of an LSD-addled narrator who sputters, “In Heaven, Jesus resembles a dead lamb with seven horns and seven eyes. When the gates of Hell are opened, locusts pour out with human faces, wearing tiny crowns, and they sting people with their tails.”
Disillusioned by the Bible, Sweeney goes on to explore other faiths, from pantheism to Buddhism and points in between, only to reject them all. She’s at her comic best when interacting with others in her search — especially her devout parents, who, toward the story’s end, take in clueless stride Sweeney’s announcement that she no longer believes in God.
“This doesn’t mean that you aren’t going to go to Mass anymore, does it?” her mother asks.
Sweeney, who created both the endearing office drudge Mea Culpa while she was a member of the Groundlings theater company, and the androgynous character Pat on Saturday Night Live, is that rare performer who brings technical talent and contemplative powers to her live stage shows, which have included And God Said, “Ha!” and In the Family Way. Moving about Steven Young’s spare but homey set at the Hudson Backstage Theater, she quickly establishes a bond with her audience that never lets go.
Nevertheless, with a two-hour running time, her show is about 15 minutes too long — maybe even more, judging by how Sweeney seemed to rush some of the material on opening night. And while she mostly avoids the sentimental pitfalls of memoir theater, she still resorts to two emotional gimmicks — Family Album Slides and Funny Things My Daughter Said. Letting Go of God and A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant will turn out to be bruising evenings for the concerned faithful, though no one can accuse Sweeney or Jarrow and Timbers of malice. Perhaps a little sacrilege is good for the soul.
A VERY MERRY UNAUTHORIZED CHILDREN’S SCIENTOLOGY PAGEANT | Book, lyrics and music by KYLE JARROW, from a concept by ALEX TIMBERS | At the POWERHOUSE THEATER, 3116 Second St., Santa Monica | Through November 21 | (866) 633-6246
LETTING GO OF GOD | By JULIA SWEENEY | At the HUDSON BACKSTAGE THEATER, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood | Through November 21 | (323) 960-4420