As a newspaper columnist who spends most nights in a theater seat, there are not many performances that grip me enough, plus offer an added entertaining incentive, to woo me to plop down some more dollars as a reason to see a production more than once, especially in the same week.
Actress and voice-over talent Cathy Schenkelberg, and her hit one-woman show “Squeeze My Cans,” rank among those select show stage experiences capable of such a marquee magical spell.
It’s little wonder her show has been extended by one-week and is now completing the final stretch of performances through Sunday, March 19 in the upstairs performance space at Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave. in Chicago.
Directed with precision by Shirley Anderson, “Squeeze My Cans” makes the most of every glance, movement and word shared by Schenkelberg. This is her 80-minute (with no intermission) clever and compelling journey into the strange and stretch-of-the-imagination world of Scientology, based on Schenkelberg’s real-life 15 year odd (and expensive) journey of consumed consciousness, while caught in the cultish and conforming world as a Scientologist.
The show’s double-entendre title comes from the portable tabletop device (see photo) used in Scientology during regular sessions, called “audits,” with the practicing members. Using the basic technology of a “lie-detector machine,” two lightweight metal cylinders (about the size of Red Bull cans) are attached with wires to the box, which features a dial and “floating needle.” When the “cans” are held in the palms and slightly gripped with “a squeeze,” a low wattage signal triggered by the body’s rhythms result in the needle moving as questions are posed to the person who is being audited. Auditors, as explained by Schenkelberg, use various manners of questioning tactics, including posing queries which might be as simple as “Did you eat breakfast?” to more delving topics about sexual practices and early life and childhood stories which could have impacted one’s personal emotional growth and even fragile mental state. All of these exercises are intended to assist Scientologists to “go clear,” a term linked to a freedom of mind and energy empowerment.
Though I only have limited knowledge and interest in the subject of Scientology, it was less of this show’s sensational title and more about the intriguing description in the show’s marketing description which grabbed my interest: “Have you ever wondered if Bozo was a suppressive person? Have you ever considered what it might be like to audition to be Tom Cruise’s girlfriend? What would you do if the carrot of spiritual freedom was dangled in front of you, waiting to be seized? Writer/performer Cathy Schenkelberg decided to chase it and what she found was Scientology: America’s foremost intergalactic theology. After years of studying and searching, she found herself blowing alien life forms off her body, farther than ever from who she had hoped to be. Now, she returns to share that story in this no-holds-barred cautionary tale of how she survived the pseudoscience.”
Schenkelberg is originally from Nebraska, but found quick success when she moved to Chicago and began stage and commercial voice-over work. It was at this same time she became part of Chicago television’s most legendary children’s show, when she was hired to play Pepper the Clown on “The Bozo Show” in 1994, after it was moved to a one-per-week airing on Sundays on WGN and renamed “The Bozo Super Sunday Show.” The character of Pepper was added to Bozo’s silly gang with two other “younger clowns,” after veterans Roy Brown aka Cooky the Clown and Marshall Brodien aka Wizzo the Wacky Wizard retired from the show in 1994. It was also at this same time she began to explore Scientology at the recommendation of an actress friend, after what Schenkelberg describes as “a coffee meeting that lasted 10 hours.”
Schenkelberg left her clown alter-ego Pepper in 1996 as her career continued to prosper throughout the next decade and moved to more voice-over commercial work with her distinct vocals heard pitching big name brands like Gerber, Shout detergent, Sears and Applebee’s. She was also drawn into a draining pattern of investing considerable sums of her earnings into the “courses” of Scientology, as well as moving to Los Angeles and later, Clearwater, Fla., which she bills as the epicenter of Scientology headquarters.
Along this crooked road of self-discovery and self destruction, Schenkelberg includes in her show the intertwined lives and the effects of her bizarre beliefs (which spanned aliens, past lives, distant planets and a slew of noted celebrity names, including John Travolta, which she reveals) as they impacted her young daughter, her parents and friends. A running total of her life’s financial investment to the coffers of Scientology is displayed on a screen on stage and quickly runs into a staggering six-figure amount.
The return of “Squeeze My Cans” to Chicago follows sold-out runs in 2016 at Outdoor Voices Festival and Sacred Fools Theater/Hollywood Fringe Festival in Los Angeles and Dunes Summer Theatre in Michigan City.
Greenhouse Artistic Director Jacob Harvey sums up the stage time with Schenkelberg nicely: “Cathy manages to turn her nearly 20-year experience with America’s most prominent alien religion into a fearless, hilarious and heartbreaking performance. Now more than ever we need stories about survival and the power of perseverance, which is why we’ve extended our run, and added an additional performance benefitting the Human Rights Campaign. The world needs more artists like Cathy Schenkelberg, and more organizations like the HRC.”
I couldn’t agree more.
Schenkelberg, who has made humor one of her life-saving remedies to her Scientology nightmare, has also hinted to a follow-up “Part 2” to her Scientology collision course rollercoaster ride in the form of a new show she plans to unveil in Chicago at Mary’s Attic this Spring. Stay tuned…
The production team for “Squeeze My Cans” includes: Brandon Baruch (lighting design), Victorio (Toy) Deiorio (sound and projection design) and Ron Rude (production manager)
The Greenhouse Theater Center is a nonprofit performance venue located at 2257 N. Lincoln Ave. in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood.
Philip Potempa is a veteran journalist and published author. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.