NEW-TIME RELIGION Sullivan as Hubbard. [Photo by Brian Gagnon]
Very odd, very brave, and curiously interesting. The Wilbury Group’s staging of A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant (through December 21) is all three because it’s. . . well, a children’s pageant.
The satire isn’t performed by grown-up actors in pigtails and short pants but rather, like its hit 2003 Off-Broadway incarnation, by children. Mostly prepubescent, with the usual range of cuteness and capability. Book, music, and lyrics are by Kyle Jarrow (from a concept by Alex Timbers) and it’s directed by David Tessler. The amateurishness — adorable at times — is contrasted with some quite sophisticated projection effects, occasionally animated, depicting travel locations and subjects under discussion (the projection and lighting design is credited to Michael Commendatore and Adam O’Brien; production design to Jacqueline Frole).
Originally an hour long, it’s boiled down to about 45 minutes here, so apparently pains were taken to gather together all the good bits. Songs such as “Science of the Mind” and “Mister Auditor” attempt to convey basic Scientology concepts in terms simple enough for children to understand, just as the biographical song “L. Ron Hubbard” entertainingly outlines the life of the founder. If this presentation by children parallels any naïvete and credulousness of the cult’s . . . I mean, the religion’s followers, so be it.
The song “Hey! It’s a Happy Day!” celebrates the birth of Hubbard (Jenny Sullivan) in a nativity scene reminiscent of an earlier one, when an angel (Ally Gower) announces that “billions of years of evolution had climaxed with his birth.” The biographical travelogue begins: “Today we relate the life of L. Ron Hubbard — teacher, author, explorer, atomic physicist, nautical engineer, choreographer, horticulturist, and father of Scientology.” Note that “megalomaniac” is respectfully absent from the list; the show rarely strays from the point of view of adoring acolytes and Scientology material itself.
Happiness might have been at the end of Hubbard’s biographical road, but there were hard, thoughtful times along the way. During World War II, he found himself floating in a lifeboat in the Pacific, pondering the meaning of life and developing his theory that emotions should be banished through rational thinking, as he explains in the song “Science of the Mind.”
The story of human evolution as detailed by Hubbard is worthy of a writer of sci-fi and fantasy potboilers, which he started out as. He explained to followers who paid thousands of dollars to be privy to his esoteric secrets that the evil Prince Xenu (Theo Bazin) on a far-off planet was responsible for billions of souls, called Thetans, to be inhabiting human beings on Earth, who need to be freed of subconscious traumatic memories called “engrams,” thereby “cleared” and content. This is done by sitting down with an “auditor,” who asks questions while the subject grips an “E-meter” (originally, two tin cans) to register reactions. And so on.
Quasi-scientific methods were necessary because Hubbard’s foundational observation was that thinking rather than emotion is the key to happiness. (During a song and dance routine in the pageant, Hubbard breaks the link between the Reactive Minds and the Analytical Minds, played by Madison Durfee and Danielle Durfee.)