Two Hollywood theater troupes get religion


Weekly Variety, November 1-7, 2004


By Rob Kendt

Anyone can make fun of religion, but two new L.A. stage productions are taking a different tack. They satirize local controversial beliefs by ironically celebrating them.


In "Hollywood Hell House," which ran from August through Halloween, a troupe of L.A. comics lampoons Christian fundamentalist hellfire by staging walk-through haunted house-style environments that replicate sincere “hell house" sites depicting the horrors of drugs, abortions, homosexuality and rock music.


And in "A Very Merry (Unauthorized) Scientology Pageant," running through Nov. 21 at Santa Monica's Powerhouse Theatre after a splash Off-Broadway run last year, a cast of grade-schoolkids enacts the life and teachings of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard in the straight-faced style of a Nativity play.


Both works intend a critique of their subjects by, in essence, letting them speak for themselves. Of course, the targets don't see it that way.


"What they're doing with ‘Hell House,' the ‘Saturday Night Live' version, doesn't do even a remote amount of justice to what we do," says Pastor Keenen Roberts. He's the Assemblies of God minister whose "Hell House" kit, based on the walk-through he stages annually with Destiny Church in Arvada, Colo., was grist for the L.A. spoof.


Roberts attended the L.A. production's opening and, while he deplores its mocking intentions, he's pleased with the publicity it has brought his own "Hell House ministry."


That sort of talk makes the spoof's co-creator Maggie Rowe, who bought Roberts' kit saying she had a "youth group in West Hollywood," a little uneasy.


"There's a weird feeling of making a pact with the devil," admits Rowe, an actress and writer who's mounting the play with several colleagues from Comedy Central's Hollywood workspace. Among those in the rotating cast: Bill Maher, Andy Richter, Sarah Silverman, Roma Maffia, and Richard Belzer. "We're both benefiting from the publicity, but we're each banking on it doing totally different things."


For Rowe, a former Southern Baptist, "Hell House" is "therapy on a mass scale--to make light of something which damaged my life."


Pastor Roberts plans a form of satiric payback: In his own "Hell House" this year, he says he'll have a "Maggie lookalike" in the hell scene, frying next to the homosexuals and pot smokers, where she'll tell passersby, "There's no hell."


Playwright Kyle Jarrow and director Alex Timbers, creators of the Hubbard pageant, might have feared more serious retaliation from their target, the Church of Scientology. Their New York production sparked a letter from the Church mentioning, if not explicitly threatening, legal action. They promptly forwarded it to The New York Times, ensuring greater publicity for the show.


Indeed, Scientology seems determined not to protest the L.A. production too much. Says Chel Stith, a local spokesperson for the Church, "This is not litigation material. This is nothing."


Jarrow's script has only one direct quote from Hubbard's writing, skirting copyright infringement issues. But, as with "Hollywood Hell House," "Pageant" presents its subject's beliefs more or less straight.


"Almost all the information in the show is taken from their own literature." explains Timbers. "We thought that the best way to satirize the Church of Scientology was to let the Church speak for itself."