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Scientology's Child's Play

December 21, 2003

Most children would be content to play a shepherd in their first Christmas pageant. Max Miner gets to play John Travolta. The 11-year-old also portrays a robot and other roles in "A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant," now Off Broadway through Jan. 4 at the John Houseman Theater after a sold-out run at the Tank, also on West 42nd Street.

Conceived and directed by Alex Timbers, with text and songs by Kyle Jarrow, the 55-minute show purports to tell the story of the life of L. Ron Hubbard (played by Jordan Wolfe, 13), including his stints as a science fiction writer and World War II Navy man, culminating in his founding of the Church of Scientology in 1954.

Hubbard called Scientology a religion but its critics have considered it a lucrative business. Adherents say it is not based on the worship of a god, but is a method of counseling and courses that helps individuals break free from unnecessary emotions to lead more rewarding lives. High-profile followers include Mr. Travolta, Tom Cruise (portrayed in the show by Daren Watson) and Kirstie Alley (Stephanie Favoreto Queiroz).

As if Hubbard wasn't an unusual enough subject for an atheist (Mr. Jarrow) and a non-practicing Roman Catholic (Mr. Timbers) to tackle, the two men decided to portray his life story in the form of a children's Christmas pageant - a clash of substance and style that is typical of their past projects.

Last January, Mr. Timbers, 25, and two fellow Yale graduates, Jennifer Rogien, 25, and Aaron Lemon-Strauss, 22, formed the theater company Les Freres Corbusier, named for fictional grandchildren of the architect Le Corbusier, who figured in a show that Mr. Timbers conceived at Yale. The company's aim, Mr. Timbers said, is to both celebrate and satirize historical icons by examining conflicting interpretations of them. Its previous show, Mr. Jarrow's "President Harding Is a Rock Star," depicted one of the worst-ever chief executives as a babe magnet in black leather pants.

In this vein, and because the pageant concept was already ironic, Mr. Timbers said, he wanted to "juxtapose that with a straightforward retelling of the life of L. Ron Hubbard, for the kids not to wink back at the audience but perform it very genuinely, with as much honesty and integrity as a real Scientologist would."

In a recent interview, however, the Rev. John Carmichael, president of the Church of Scientology of New York, said "these guys just don't understand the subject."

After visiting a rehearsal and sending a letter of protest, Mr. Carmichael saw the show and was not amused. "These folks have a right to write whatever play they want," he said, but "they've sunk to cliches." Hubbard, who died in 1986 at 74, is portrayed in the show, Mr. Carmichael said, as an authoritarian demagogue whose methods create emotionless followers. "We believe it's up to you," he emphasized. "Salvation depends on the individual."

Mr. Jarrow, 24, said that for his text he drew from both Scientology literature and journalistic accounts that criticize it.

Using a cast of 10 children, ages 8 to 13, Mr. Timbers's production mimics a Sunday school class's earnest attempt at holiday theater, complete with stiff line readings and blocking. Its portrayal of Hubbard's birth even parodies a Nativity scene, with little L. Ron surrounded by parents and barnyard animals as an angel (Alison Stacy Klein) proclaims, "Billions of years of evolution had climaxed with his birth."

The same juxtaposition is visible in Ms. Rogien's production design, which combines a pageant's low-budget style with science fiction imagery: costumes of white robes and rainbow-striped socks. Similarly, Mr. Jarrow's songs use video game music, "Free to Be You and Me"-style kiddie rock and beats from a child's keyboard synthesizer with the otherworldly sound of the symphonic band Polyphonic Spree.

Amid this zaniness, the tone can turn poignant, as when Sophie Whitfield, 11, who plays a struggling actress named Annie, lip-synchs to a ballad about giving control of oneself over to someone else.

After all, Mr. Timbers concluded, Scientology is "about clearing your mind - almost embracing the mind of the child."

Zachary Pincus-Roth has written about theater for Variety.

Quotes from various media about the play:

New York magazine: "A holiday-classic-to-be!"

WNYC: "An irony-fest..."

Flavor Pill: "The lighthearted nature of pageantry is undercut with dark, irreverent pokes at the organization's questionable practices, provocatively juxtaposing weighty content and innocent revelry... (the children) deliver a comic poignancy."

The New York Times: "The Rev. John Carmichael, President of the Church of Scientology in New York, is not amused."

New York Observer: "A hilarious spectacle!"

The Village Voice: "A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant does to L. Ron Hubbard what (Brecht's) The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui did to Adolf Hitler..." "A subversive treat... The show's ending must count as one of the most unexpected and downright creepy in recent memory... With a cast so perfectly assembled that it brings to mind Waiting for Guffman... The combined charm of these sweet moppets is enough to make you want to yell 'Tis the season for Scientology!'"

Time Out New York: "Wonderfully weird... Refreshing... Subversive... The show artfully succeeds at both telling and mocking the tale of Scientology."

The New Yorker: "Twelve-year-old Jordan Wolfe is side-splitting as the church's founder."

The New York Sun: "Brave and lunatic... Hilarious and disturbing at once... No one has an excuse to miss the show's run at the Houseman."

The New York Times: "The gutsiest gimmick in New York theater for 2003... A spooky, sharp-toothed smile of a show... Pageant has already acquired a halo of hipness and daring... A cult-hit blueprint for a young generation that prefers its irony delivered with not a wink but a blank stare."

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