About three minutes into Stray Cat Theatre's newest production, I found myself thinking: This can't be really happening. When you go to see it — and you must, if you do nothing else this holiday season, go see this astonishing stage production — you will almost certainly experience the same sense of delighted confusion.
I was aware that A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant was performed entirely by children, who would be telling the story of how the late religious leader L. Ron Hubbard created Scientology, the controversial science fiction-based religion most prominently associated with movie stars John Travolta and Tom Cruise. But I found myself wondering how director Gary Minyard, who deserves high and endless praise for pulling off this improbable entertainment, explained irony and camp to people who only recently stopped believing in Santa Claus.
It helps that Scientology Pageant's two leads are so talented. Tiny Brittney Peters, dressed in a snow-white gown and a tinfoil halo as a narrator named Angelic Girl, sings with the sort of big, clear voice rarely found in performers even twice her age. She reads wink-and-nudge comic lines without so much as a smirk, another rare talent in any child performer.
I typically don't review the performances of children, but Maxx Carlisle-King is no child. He is a peculiar force of nature — one with perfect pitch and the ability to sell comic lines like a pro — trapped in a kid's body. There wasn't a single precocious moment in the boy's performance, and I became convinced, watching him, that if he were 20 years older, I'd still have been awed by his stage skills.
The supporting cast is perfect, too, in part because they are essentially playing themselves: Kids playing kids in an oddball holiday show, sometimes muttering their lines while having to haul cheesy set pieces on and off stage. It's a keen trick of playwright Kyle Jarrow's to include mediocrity as an element in his play, but what's more impressive about the playwright's material is that it presents both Hubbard and Scientology rather earnestly, and rarely riffs on them.
Jarrow's bit about the difference between the Active Mind and the Analytical Mind, acted out by a pair of pre-teens dressed as floppy pink brains, is as instructive as it is amusing. A courtroom scene in which a young woman sings about how Scientology saved her (while Hubbard manipulates her limbs from behind and eventually takes over her vocal) is a subtle exception. But if there's any disrespect, it's not in Jarrow's script, but rather inferred by an audience who finds it amusing that Scientologist Kirstie Alley "got clear" (a high Scientology achievement) only to slum in a show called Fat Actress, or who can't help but titter at some of the religion's more oddball appliances, like the E-Meter, which essentially measures the pollution in one's soul.
There's plenty of campy, straightforward humor, too, like a nativity attended by children dressed as a chicken and a giant snail, or a number during which the vocalist calls out "Dance break!" just before kids begin boogieing maniacally, as if they were the crazed cast from a rerun of Zoom. I rarely stopped laughing during this barely-hour-long show, and my single complaint about A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant is that it ended too soon.