Cathy Schenkelberg adds her own narrative to the recent repudiations of Scientology in the remount of her rapid-fire, intimate, informative, mind-boggling and poignant solo exploration Squeeze My Cans.
In 2015, Alex Gibney made a documentary of Lawrence Wright’s book Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief. Recently, actor Leah Remini produced an eight-episode A&E series titled “Scientology and the Aftermath,” recounting her indoctrination and 30 years in the cult before she escaped (and is now pursued by the litigious and vindictive organization).
Under the tight and accessible direction of Shirley Anderson, Schenkelberg wrote and performs her own Midwestern angle of how the “alien theology” uses seduction and shaming to recruit members and take as much of their money as possible. The simple set of a stool, a chair and an overhead interrogation light is dominated by a backdrop featuring projections that include Schenkelberg’s growing tally of hundreds of thousands of dollars for required “clearings” and courses over 20 years.
One of ten kids raised Catholic in Omaha, she initially wanted to join the Peace Corps but ended up in Chicago as a working actor, booking numerous national voice-over campaigns as well as playing Pepper the Clown on “The Bozo Show.” She says Scientology crossed her path three times, finally leading her to a 10-hour conversation with an acquaintance who enticed her and her need for spiritual answers into the rogue religion. The literature espoused that one should “dare to think for yourself,” but what she later learned was more an exclusive aspiration, to “help the able become more able.”
Schenkelberg went from PC, “pre-clear,” to rise in the ranks by taking humiliating brainwashing sessions with an auditor who used cans that gave low electric shocks and were hooked to electronic needles that she hoped she could get to float, after being harassed by repetitive questions about personal, often painful, memories and issues. She ended up in Los Angeles, catching glimpses of famous acolytes like Kirstie Alley and John Travolta (Schenkelberg was asked if she liked his flop film “Battlefield Earth,” based on founder L. Ron Hubbard’s novel) at the lavish Scientology centers, even auditioning for “the role” of Tom Cruise’s girlfriend.
Her “wog” (“Muggle”/non-Scientologist) friends became worried as she also spent time on more expensive sessions in Clearwater, Florida, with her young daughter in tow. Her long journey was a combination of The Wizard of Oz and The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, as she clung to the mantra that “the way out is the way through.”
Schenkelberg’s honesty, joy and forgiveness are intense and infectious. In a political climate intent on taking advantage of those struggling to find faith and self-acceptance, “Squeeze My Cans” is a paean to childhood, a cautionary tale about feckless fate, and a tribute to letting truth trump chicanery.
Squeeze My Cans runs through March 12 at Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave. Tickets are available online or by calling 773-404-7336.