Christmas is virtually inescapable in American culture. Even if you don't celebrate the holiday, it's practically impossible to grow up here without being steeped in yuletide traditions and rituals. Eggnog practically runs in our blood.
The holidays give theatrical satirists a wealth of raw material, because our collective cultural memories of Christmas go so far back. Often, the season inspires lightly comedic fare such as ART Station's A Broadway Christmas Carol.
Sometimes, however, Santa brings some shows that are darker and more complex, such as a pair of new holiday comedy musicals. At Dad's Garage Theatre, A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant only implicitly mentions Christmas, but uses the universal form of a young people's holiday pageant -- right down to an all-kid cast -- to lampoon the cult of Scientology.
Wait, did I say "cult?" I meant "church," of course. Meanwhile, Savage Tree Arts Project's A Midwinter Night's Dream draws on dark pop genres for a bizarre, scattershot spoof of Christmas lore.
Beginning with a kid-friendly, amusingly generic hymn about an unspecified holiday, Scientology Pageant launches into a suspiciously upbeat retelling of "the story of stories," the life of science-fiction-author-turned-Scientology-founder L. Ron Hubbard. Hunter Ballard, age 11, plays Hubbard like a grade-school huckster and motivational speaker as he seeks the meaning of life, creates his own pseudo-scientific religion and gets stinking rich.
Seeing Scientology Pageant is like watching a high-wire act. Because the actors' ages range from 8 to 12, a little suspense comes from simply watching them deliver their lines, particularly when, say, an 8-year-old boy launches into a stinging indictment of Scientology's treatment of its members. The ensemble's acting styles may be unsubtle, but they're an undeniably charming bunch and the gimmick pays off handsomely.
Credit director Mary Claire Dunn not just for instilling the children with such confidence in their delivery, but helping them play multiple roles and manage funny bits of stage business, from frolicking like kids to imitating grown-up behavior. Sarah Gooding as the heavenly narrator at times has a spoiled-princess attitude that plays hilariously against her angelic costume. Jason David makes the most of two of the funniest roles: actor John Travolta and alien overlord Xenu, a major figure in Hubbard's theology.
Playwright Kyle Jarrow crafts peppy musical numbers about "e-meters" and other bits of Scientologist jargon. ("South Park" may have stolen some of the show's thunder, but Jarrow's parody came first.) Many of the jokes probably go over the young cast's heads, but the actors' youth speaks to an unexpectedly serious theme. The Children's Scientology Pageant isn't that different from a schoolchildren's play about the glorious life of Chairman Mao in Communist China; if you want to brainwash people, get them while they're young.
Children's Scientology Pageant contains a far more subversive perspective on religion and manipulating innocent minds. Few shows so cute have ever seemed so ominous.