The artless innocence of a children’s holiday pageant provides the deceptively benign backdrop for this deeply probing and ultimately disturbing query into the history of guru L. Ron Hubbard, founder of the Church of Scientology. Helmer Alex Timbers, who conceived and guided last year’s Off Broadway preem of “A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant” (book, music and lyrics by Kyle Jarrow), impressively guides a 12-member cast of children through the labyrinthine life of Hubbard while evoking the poignant earnestness of callow youth who have no other agenda than to put on a show.
As the children extol in gleeful unison litany, this is the story of a “teacher, author, explorer, atomic physicist, nautical engineer, choreographer and horticulturist.” The production follows the evolution of Hubbard from his early years in Montana, concentrating mostly on his rise from struggling sci-fi writer to supreme leader of a highly controversial new age religious empire.
David Evans Morris’ colorful, crayon-colored backdrop of space age-like, semi-circular set pieces provides the setting.
Ever-tranquil, angel-robed Katie Ellis, 12, serves as narrator and a facile-beyond-his-years Kyle Kaplan, 13, confidently assumes the persona of Hubbard. The lighthearted nature of the pageantry is undercut, however, with dark, irreverent jabs at the organization’s questionable practices, provocatively juxtaposing innocent revelry and weighty content. The children’s total lack of posturing or performance awareness is what makes it all work. Timbers has even interjected awkward forgot-my-lines pauses into the narrative (especially from 8-year-old Tony Quinonez) to further underscore that these prepubescents do not comprehend the import of their words.
This perceived lack of artifice makes the production’s indictment of Hubbard-inspired Dianetics and the “science” of Scientology that much more devastating. Included in the mix are show-and-tell explanations of Hubbard’s notion of the divided mind (embodied by angel-faced identical twins Jessica and Nikki Haddad in matching brain outfits) and a device called the e-meter (short for electropsychometer), used to monitor the human psyche, which is demonstrated by stick puppets.
The highlight of the Hubbard-bashing is a laugh-till-it-hurts depiction of the alien Thetans, the cosmic basis for many of Scientology’s core beliefs. This tale is recounted by diminutive 11-year-old Kristopher Barnett, who waddles uncomfortably onto the stage in full robot attire. The hilarity of the performance is in direct proportion to the outlandishness of the precept.
Whether justified or not, Jarrow and Timbers make no effort be fair or impartial in their indictment of a man who made a dynamic impact on society during his life and continues to do so nearly a quarter century after his death. They succeed quite impressively in communicating their agenda. The final thrust of the satirical dagger comes at the show-ending tableau as the cast is seen through a transom at the back of the theater, standing outside, holding candles and singing cheerfully as a heavy iron door slams shut, forever blocking them from the audience’s view.
This review was corrected on November 10, 2004.