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A midnight clear 

Two different approaches to holiday satire

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.

For his world premiere, A Midwinter Night's Dream, Atlanta playwright Kyle Crew views the holidays not through the prism of L. Ron Hubbard, but another fantastical writer with a devoted following: horror author H.P. Lovecraft. With its mysterious agents, occult texts and far-reaching conspiracies, Crew's play could be titled The X-Mas Files. The writer takes an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach to tweaking the holidays, from speculating about the mass of Christ, in grams, to a battle royale between cyborg-reindeer Mecha-Blitzen and The Abdominal Snowman -- not "Abominable," but "Abdominal."

The play's dialogue relies heavily on twisted Christmas-related puns, and some of them pay off, such as the prophesy "You shall find the babe in swaddling clothes, lying to the manager." Unfortunately, even by standards of surreal comedy, Dream's plot borders on incoherence. One of the central characters, Dad (Robert Sanders), is an all-American family man who apparently runs a "sneakret" organization out to uncover the truth about Santa Claus, even though he might actually be St. Nick himself. The fact that characters comment that this makes no sense doesn't make the show any less trying.

With sketch-comedy-style performances, it's hard to get a fix on the characters, with rare exceptions such as John Curran's Rev. Underwood, who renews his faith upon finding a real baby at a nativity scene. It may not have helped that Crew himself directs the play's world-premiere production. Perhaps having a director with a fresh set of eyes could have brought the action into sharper focus.

The centerpiece of Savage Tree's program of multiple holiday-themed shows, A Midwinter Night's Dream, is the rare play with too many ideas for its own good, from TV parodies to sexy reindeer in body stockings to the Bah Humbugs: mysterious troll-like creatures who take the stage with big build-up but don't do much of anything. Despite its dark implications, A Midwinter Night's Dream appears, at heart, to be in love with the holidays, although it's ultimately hard to sort out the play's intentions.

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.

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