’Tis the season to be harried. No, wait. Merry? I don’t know. It really depends on your world view, I suppose. Most likely, either you’re ambivalent (and rightly so – no matter what your faith, there are extra cookies to be had in the office kitchen and egg nog ripe for the slurping at many a dinner party, but on the other hand, there’s a lot more traffic and there’s no such thing as a quick errand anymore), excited (hanging the stockings with care! Presents! Family!) or terrified (hanging the stockings with care! Returning presents! Family!).
But what if you stopped to look at the holiday season from a slightly dif- ferent perspective? What if you questioned the rituals and rites, the holly and the hullaballoo? That’s what the Wilbury Theatre Group is doing this month as they present "A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant." Not only is it the group’s first “holiday” offering, though Founding Artistic Director Josh Short is careful to say that it’s not necessarily intended that way, it’s the Rhode Island premiere of the show.
And there’s a lot to like here, both as a – dare I say it – holiday experience and as a theatrical endeavor. Written by Kyle Jarrow based on a concept by director Alex Timbers (one of the writers behind the hit play Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson), the play follows the origin story behind something even scarier than the mall parking lot this time of year: Scientology. Told in the style of a traditional Christmas pageant, the production stays true to those expectations in one respect – it’s made up of a cast of eleven children between the ages of 10 to 13, except for the musical director and accompanist, adult actor Kerry Callery. But this is not your average pageant, says Josh.
“It’s extremely thought-provoking. The use of children is important because when you hear these words” – real text from the founder of Scientology, the late great novelist, Hollywood hob-knobber and likely extraterrestrial L. Ron Hubbard, by the way – “spoken by children about the ideas behind Scientology, the innocence with
which they do it strikes you.”
No matter what your view of religion in general or Scientology specifically, you have to admit that the writers are onto something in their takedown of the unilateral proclamations and illogical, strangely childlike leaps that L. Ron’s followers make in the play “This is basically a reflection of how when adults join these religions, or cults, they revert back to this childlike state of believing whatever you tell them to believe. It’s scary,” says Josh.
Working with children is so essential to the fabric of the play, in fact, that Josh says the writers make it explicitly clear in the production notes that the parts are not to be played by adult actors. But working with an all-child cast was something that was new to the Wilbury Group, says Josh, though in the hands of director David Tessier, who has experience working with children in theater classes, any hesitation he had went out the window. The group has just started rehearsals as of this writing, and Josh reports that the kids are indeed “adorable.”
Undoubtedly, one of the reasons why Josh is so reluctant to simply label this a “holiday” play and be done with it is the group’s mission, which is to bring cutting-edge theater to Rhode Island audiences. “We try, with each of our productions, to spark some discussion and promote some thought,” he says. “My hope is that this sparks discussion in our audience about religion in general, what are some of the good and detrimental effects it has on our lives. A discussion about what is a healthy belief in something as opposed to an unhealthy belief when people are being duped,” says Josh.
To help promote the spirit of discussion, the group is offering a talk-back after three of its Thursday shows (December 5, 12 & 19). A comparative religion professor will be on-hand to moderate the first two discussions, while the last will be moderated by the cast.
“We’re very excited to be able to present this to people. It’s our first full season as a theater company, so if people haven’t come to see us yet, we’re hoping this will get them there,” says Short.
I, for one, will be there with bells on.
A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant, December 5-21, 393 Broad St, 400-7100.