The Circle Theatre’s cast of A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant (l to r, front to back): Cayman Mitchell, Logan Kirkendoll, George Paddock, McKenna Booth, Riley Morrison, Taylor Fox, Madeline Paddock, Tayia Anderson
- The KERA radio review:
- The expanded online review:
The Psalms tell us that even “out of the mouths of babes and infants, the Lord has built his strength.”
Popular culture tells us – something different. Out of the mouths of babes – and hilarious children’s entertainments – has come some pretty sharp mockery. Take South Park. For more than a decade, those cynical cartoon tykes have been used to send up Mormonism, the Vatican, Al Gore. Just about any belief system. And on stage, the musical Avenue Q has used Sesame Street-style puppets to spoof adult problems.
Now the Circle Theatre in Fort Worth offers the area premiere of an off-Broadway hit. The title of A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant sums up its premise and its target: Eight singing and dancing teenagers relate the story of L. Ron Hubbard and his Church of Scientology. What this comedy deliberately resembles is a cheerfully half-baked, high-school production of Godspell: There’s the kitschy pop music, the cardboard props and the hammeringly upbeat spiritual message. Even if that message is tongue-in-cheek.
In fact, the satire here is mostly deadpan. Written and composed by Kyle Jarrow, the Pageant often just quotes Hubbard. Cayman Mitchell plays Hubbard, and here he explains Dianetics, his ‘science of the mind.’ For Hubbard, an engram is a painful memory or unconscious association.
CAYMAN: “When your sister broke her toe while dancing to the hokey pokey, that engram was tied to the sound of the hokey pokey. When your mother passed out drunk at the dinner table, that engram was tied to the taste of spaghetti. So whenever you hear the hokey pokey, whenever you taste spaghetti, it brings back those awful memories. You get angry, you get sad, you get sick. But you can’t give up. There’s hope. And it has a name: Dianetics!”
This is just a crude version of Freud’s theory of the subconscious. But it offers something Freud never did: the power of positive thinking. What makes Scientology very American — and popular — is Hubbard’s sales pitch: Happiness is possible! If you just think my way. And in this show, Hubbard’s happiness includes power, fame and eluding the IRS.
In all of these satiric kiddie shows, we have the Emperor’s New Clothes effect: Children can get away with spouting the outrageous truths that adults dare not speak. There’s also the humor of innocence and incongruity. The kids are trash-talking mouthpieces, sounding more cynical or adult than they normally might.
And then there’s the cute ineptitude. South Park has its cut-and-paste animation, the Pageant has its erratic performers and its sometimes delightfully cheesy production. In this number, George Paddock and Taylor Fox bounce around in inflatable fat suits — because each is portraying half a brain:
SINGING: “We are the mind and you’ve discovered our science. We’re made of two parts in a delicate alliance. The first part’s analytical, it makes you think clear. The second part is reactive and it’s full of emotions like fear. The reactive mind holds all your memories of pain. The reactive mind is what makes you go insane.”
The difficulty with this pretend-amateurishness is that the humor wavers. Directed by Jaime Castaneda, the young actors sometimes hurry and mumble their lines. And the show itself doesn’t really have the courage of its satire. It doesn’t savage Scientology, not the way South Park did. In fact, the Pageant is a bit thin. It’s barely an hour long.
Like it really couldn’t stay up past its bedtime.
- Punch Shaw’s review in the Star Telegram.
- Mark Lowry’s review in Pegasus News.