It's a challenge to define the term illuminati in all its incarnations. Several science fiction novels, as well as historical documents, describe a secret society of white and black magicians - including the legendary British sorcerer Aleister Crowley - who planned on ruling the world through esoteric rituals and spiritual power. These guys weren't prestidigators, masters of card tricks and other sleights of hand; these magicians invoked and evoked real demons, true gods. Formidable opponents of organized religion, the sect nonetheless conducted (and perhaps still conducts) ceremonies mimicking the mystical elements of Catholicism, such as exorcism, faith healing, and the Mass itself.
Weird? Intriguing? You may experience similar reactions to the latest piece of work using this myth, a confounding and ultimately brilliant play called Some Things You Need to Know Before the World Ends (A Final Evening With the Illuminati), widely known in the theater world simply as Illuminati.
Possessing some of the majesty and force of a religious experience, the play defies tidy description. On a basic level, it's a Sunday service railing against demons like the illuminati, performed by two unlikely men of the cloth: Reverend Eddie, mentally damaged by the nerve gas that has destroyed the rest of the world, and loyal Brother Lawrence, a twisted, pain-wracked hunchback with the mind of a child and the soul of a saint. The duo dwells in a Mad Max-ish church, an underground cave filled with television sets, garbage can lids, and a giant crucifix made of twisted pipes topped with a basketball hoop.
After the audience is suitably disoriented through disturbing images and fluctuating lights, the Mass begins, interrupted frequently by Reverend Eddie's hallucinations and Lawrence's visions of a space lady in a silver lame jumpsuit, who steals into his room at night and heals him.
A space lady in a jumpsuit?
Yes, there's also broad comedy in this satire of modern values and religious travesties. And despite its dark vision of a post-apocalyptic world, the parable stays funny to the bitter end. Most of the laughs stem from heresy, of course, and those without a sense of humor about the gospel should stay away. But if you can appreciate skits that feature priests as country-western singers and Saint Paul as a woman-hating construction worker, Illuminati delivers plenty of snickers and a few evil laughs.
The Theatre Club of the Palm Beaches, fast becoming the venue to see bolder contemporary plays, comes through with both a daring and competent production. It brings the unorthodox work to comprehensible life, ensuring that audiences who don't catch all the barbs and religious references will still enjoy the experience. Adding to the overall pleasure, the new Lois Pope Theatre - a cozy, semitheater-in-the-round - boasts excellent acoustics, advanced technology, and the absence of a bad seat.
Director J. Barry Lewis successfully executes his tricky task, blending comedy with tragedy, reality with hallucination, and choral selections with The Jackson Five. His special effects hit the mark with clever timing and maximum impact. Just don't expect straightforward staging from this piece, which demands - and gets -- frantic but precise, and often surprising, movement.
Working under Lewis's direction, two experienced actors bring depth and passion to the eccentric clerics. Previously performed in Atlanta and Louisville by the actual playwrights - Larry Larson and Levi Lee - this third rendition hands the reigns over to Palm Beach veteran Warren Kelley and Carbonell winner John Felix. As Reverend Eddie, Kelley evokes an overweight Jimmy Swaggart, ranting against the devil, flagellating himself on a stationary bicycle, and playing with Brother Lawrence's emotions. Although not a charismatic performer, he provides the perfect foundation for John Felix's Lawrence.
And make no mistake about it, this Illuminati belongs to Felix. Portraying different facets of humanity, Felix unveils such an exciting physical and emotional range, he deserves bigger-time artistic recognition.
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But everyone earns kudos for a job well done. The lighting by Richard Crowell plows new creative territory with high-tech tricks, and Mark Pirolo's imaginative costumes suggest a unique construction, which allows the actors to change in and out of numerous outfits in record time.
Theater has often been compared to ritual, and nowhere is that effect more evident than here. Ironically, although the characters live in fear of the illuminati, the audience gradually becomes ensnared by a powerful and disquieting field of magic. To discover where the modern theater now dares to tread, treat yourself, and partake of this humorous, heretical celebration.
SOME THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW BEFORE THE WORLD ENDS (A FINAL EVENING WITH THE ILLUMINATI)
Written by Larry Larson and Levi Lee, directed by J. Barry Lewis; with John Felix and Warren Kelley. At the Theatre Club of the Palm Beaches, 262 South Ocean Blvd, Manalapan, through February 16. Performances Wednesday - Saturday at 8:00 p.m., Sunday at 2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Tickets cost $18 to $25. For more information, call 407-585-3433.