Written and Performed by Cathy Schenkelberg
Directed by Shirley Anderson
Produced by the Greenhouse Theater Center
In Association with Forum Productions, Chicago
Very Hard-Learned Lessons from a Former Scientologist
From now through next year, the Greenhouse Theater Center will be running one-person shows for brief engagements, some lasting for a month, others for only a few weeks. And while several of the performances will feature actors as historical figures or in distant settings, in Cathy Schenkelberg’s show Squeeze My Cans, she plays only herself. She did, however, once believe herself to be possessed by the souls of ancient aliens. Schenkelberg is a former Scientologist, and in a show that is as hilarious as it is sad, she details her whole journey into and away from the religion, minus eight hundred thousand dollars and all of her personal relationships.
Schenkelberg, originally from Omaha, relates how she started looking for a spiritual path in earnest after the death of one of her brothers, and was dissatisfied with the Roman Catholicism she was raised with. It took a long time for her to settle on Scientology, but after the church learned she was an actress, she started getting flattering treatment. This was in the mid-nineties, when the group had a much easier time controlling information about themselves, and Schenkelberg was a very young woman who desperately wanted to feel like she was doing something to help other people. Spreading the supposedly self-helping doctrine of Scientology fulfilled that role for a while, but the deeper she got into it, and the more the church demanded her money and cut her off from her family, the more paranoid and miserable she became.
She tells this story by mimicking the people she met and recounting her own actions which, in retrospect, were very clearly wrong-headed. She makes no excuses for herself, but instead, demonstrates the excessive enthusiasm and illogical thinking that lead her to squeezing pairs of cans year after year while awaiting readings that would tell her whether she was on the right path in life. The e-meter administrators are played as monotonous, unfeeling figures, which is how the church teaches them to be, and contrasts starkly with Schenkelberg’s irreverent, fun-loving, highly sexual personality. Over the course of the play, we see clearly just how much she was transformed and twisted, and how much recovering she admits she still has left to do.
This piece is one which must be very difficult to perform; it is one thing for an actor to imitate someone else reliving their worst mistakes for an audience, it is quite another to relive one’s own. Schenkelberg has the assistance of a director, Shirley Anderson, who keeps her story poignant when it needs to be, and of a design by Brandon Baruch and Victorio Deiorio which fills up the Greenhouse’s empty stage with evocative, and sometimes humorous, lighting effects and projections. But the real treat here is Schenkelberg herself. After seeing how far into Scientology she got, it’s a relief to know that she’s here, performing for us now.
Reviewed July 15, 2016
For more information, see Squeeze My Cans’ page on Theatre in Chicago.
Playing at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N Lincoln Ave, Chicago. Tickets are $25; to order, call 773-404-7336 or visit greenhousetheater.org. Performances are through July 24. Running time is seventy-five minutes.