THE TOMKAT PROJECT – Theatre Review: Stray Cat Theatre, Tempe

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Once upon a time, about seventy-five million years ago, there was this really evil ruler named Xenu.  Word is, as a form of punishment, Xenu dropped thousands upon thousands of people in volcanoes on a planet called Teegeeack.  The spirits of these unfortunate souls, or ‘thetans,’ rose out of the volcanoes and floated around the planet like fireflies.  It is said that when a child is now born on the planet, a thetan enters the body unseen and remains there, causing engrams; these are all kinds of doubts and worries; the things that hold us back.

Teegeeack is now what is known as the planet Earth and evidently there’s at least one thetan, maybe more, inside all of us, messing us up with engrams.  The cure?  A really expensive set of audits intended to clear an Earthling of anything that blocks the path to success.  And if you think this sounds like the plot to a mediocre, dated, sci-fi story inspired by Flash Gordon and written by a hack with a knack for inventing silly sounding names, hold that thought.  It’s the vision that Scientologist founder L.Ron Hubbard is said to have received that went on to inspire the Church of Scientology.  No joke.  And if that doesn’t sound whacky enough, check out THE TOMKAT PROJECT now playing at Stray Cat Theatre in Tempe until May 9th.

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Ask any actor and they’ll tell you; timing is everything.  How fortunate that HBO recently made headlines with its showing of the fascinating documentary Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief.  For Stray Cat , the timing couldn’t be better.  Written by Brandon Ogborn, who has written himself in as his own narrator, THE TOMKAT PROJECT is a blisteringly funny account of the undeniably bizarre courtship, then marriage between Scientologist Tom Cruise and actor turned Scientologist Katie Holmes.  Performed by seven actors who play more than fifty characters between them, THE TOMKAT PROJECT chronicles how Tom Cruise wanted a girlfriend and how the church aided him with his search.

In many respects, THE TOMKAT PROJECT is the perfect antidote to HBO’s documentary.  It’s like a release to all the jaw-dropping revelations in the film.  While watching the cable doc, you wanted to laugh, but couldn’t; it was all too horrifying.  TOMKAT  wants you to laugh.

The play needs no set and very little in the way of props, just the talent of seven players, though scenic designer Eric Beeck has effectively created the look of what appears to be the back of a theatre or a somewhat messy studio soundstage complete with hanging cables, a stepladder and two desks that flank either side.

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Playwright Ogborn (a bespectacled Brady Weber) lets us know from the beginning that what we’re about to see is a satire based on truths, media reports, imagined conversations, and downright lies, though the lies are more for comic effect than an effort to misinform.  When a conversation is real, Ogborn holds up a sign telling us that what we’re hearing is verbatim.  “How’s things going with Penelope?” asks current ‘church’ leader David Miscavige (David Chorley) referring to Tom Cruise’s relationship with actress Penelope Cruz.  “She dumped me,” Tom (Chris Mascarelli) replies.  “I know,” responds Miscavige, “I had you followed.”  That’s one of the lies, an imagined exchange between the two men, but the point is made, and it’s sadly funny.

The playwright also tells us that the six players interpreting all of these real-life characters look and sound nothing like the originals.  Thus, actor Mascarelli as Cruise towers over the play’s Katie Holmes (Brandi Bigley) when in reality, Katie actually towers over the diminutive Cruise by a couple of inches.  Nowhere is this funnier than in the scene where Holmes and Cruise marry.  Brandi stands on a black cube to elevate her to Mascarelli’s taller level.  At the real ceremony it might have been the other way had there been an available black cube lying around. (Point of interest: check out the balcony scene from Minority Report where a 5’ 7” Tom Cruise glares in the face of a 6’ 4” Max Von Sydow, and their noses are practically touching.  Either Von Sydow was bending his knees or there was a 9” black cube conveniently on set.  Either way, it has to rank as one of Steven Speilberg’s best special effects.)

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The cast, all seven, are terrific.  Kellie Dunlap, Chanel Bragg, David Choley and Tim Shawyer jump from exaggerated character to character at a moment’s notice while the remaining three stick to their singular, assigned role.  Brandi Bigley’s Katie has just the right amount of mid-western cuteness that sticks out like a sore thumb when surrounded by west coast sharks, and while Chris Mascarelli looks nothing like Cruise, he nevertheless manages to promote the essence of the movie star with a distinctive Cruise laugh and hand gestures.  However, given the right light and caught at the right angle, Mascarelli is actually a dead ringer for Russell Crowe.

The standout is David Chorley’s hilarious David Miscavige.  He plays the current church leader as a hammy, fey London thespian.  To add to the visual humor of the show, Chorley appears to be the tallest man in the production, towering over everyone, when in fact, at 5’ 1”, Miscavige is even more diminutive than Tom Cruise.

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But, unfortunately, you can’t have everything, and things seem to fall apart when playwright Ogborn steps out of the role of narrator and inserts himself into the play by engaging in a debate with Vanity Fair correspondent Maureen Orth (an excellent, bitchy portrayal by Kellie Dunlap).  The issue is initially interesting, even thought-provoking, when the perspectives of Cruise and Holmes are reversed as the two writers argue over who was really manipulating who, but the scene spirals downwards as characters become physical with ear-piercing screams and shouts, resulting with Orth forcibly dragged off- stage and out of the theatre.  It’s difficult to say who’s at fault; Brandon Ogborn’s script or director Louis Farber’s interpretation of the scene.  Up until that moment, Farber had displayed an admirable talent for farce by keeping all the action moving at a crisp pace without having his cast looking like community theater players bumping into each other while attempting Monty Python.  I suspect the issue is with Ogborn’s script, and the play never fully recovers.

Still, up until that moment, THE TOMKAT PROJECT keeps hitting target after wicked target with a pulse that never quits.  And in case Scientology is new to you and you’ve no idea who its creator is, there are two portraits of L.Ron Hubbard hanging in the background, hovering over the proceedings like a couple of those floating, pesky thetans.  Unfortunately, unlike those thetans who eventually vanish from sight, Hubbard remains in full view throughout the play.

 For more regarding times, dates and tickets, CLICK HERE for Stray Cat’s official website.

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