TAMPA -- Cathy Schenkelberg’s autobiographical play about her two decades in the Church of Scientology played to a full house on Saturday at Stageworks Theatre. Squeeze My Cans is as powerful a solo show as you are likely to see. Whether we’re talking about structure, humor, talent or social relevance, it connects on all levels.
The title is a sly reference to the handles of an "E-meter," Scientology’s confessional device and the narrative engine that drives the story forward. It might also be taken as commentary on Schenkelberg’s emotional relationship with the church she entered in her early twenties, answering an auditor’s robotically phrased questions in increasingly revealing terms.
The audience chuckled at the play’s opening moments, delivered informally as a kind of final preparation, Schenkelberg pacing around and behind the set chatting about hidden cameras and checking for listening devices under the lone chair at center stage. The questions -- Have you been on the Internet? Have you talked to a journalist? Have you had a negative thought about (Scientology chairman) David Miscavige or Tom Cruise? -- never change. But Schenkelberg does, and that is what makes this an attention-seizing 80 minutes.
A versatile performer who has also made a living singing and dancing, Schenkelberg had been acting in regional theaters around the country after leaving Scientology in 2009, including a role in God of Carnage at American Stage. She also participated in spoken word workshops, free form verbal platforms that seemed friendly to her own story. The pieces started fitting together.
After Shirley Anderson came on board as director, the show lengthened and took on a visual dimension, with images from her childhood and stops in Hollywood and Clearwater splashed sparingly on the screen. A lighting design by Brandon Baruch and sound by Victoria Delorio also contribute to the show’s seamless pace with tight segues.
Schenkelberg doesn’t skimp on the humor or the details, answering an auditor’s intrusive questions with self-deprecating charm, including celebrity gossip and a sexual escapade or two. But as the story unfolds, its weight increases. She loses a lucrative career as a voiceover actor. She feels detached from her parents. Her mind chatters. She becomes ever more invested in expensive remedies to help overcome deficits church members have convinced her she has, including guilt over destroying populated planets and being attacked by alien life forms.
A particularly telling visual effect runs in the upper left corner of the screen -- a running balance reflecting money she handed the church, totalling about $1 million. She leaves the church, is declared a suppressive person and begins to resume a career in the arts. Because Schenkelberg presents the story as her own, this concluding phase comes as a hard gut punch.
Spokespeople for the Church of Scientology did not return multiple requests for comment by the Times prior to last week’s story about Schenkelberg and Squeeze My Cans. Two shows remain.
3 and 8 p.m. April 2 at Stageworks Theatre, 1120 E Kennedy Blvd.,Tampa. $30-$35S. (813) 374-2416. stageworkstheatre.org.