at the Truman-O’Rourke Center for the Performing Arts


New Tuners Productions

Why is it? “When we’re talking to God, we’re praying. When God talks to us, we’re schizophrenic.”

Now that will give you something to think about for a while. –John Wayne Gacy (in personal correspondence published by the Chicago Sun-Times)

By now you may have heard about the flagecycle, the contraption that provokes one of the loudest and longest laughs in Larry Larson and Levi Lee’s madly funny Some Things You Need to Know Before the World Ends: A Final Evening With the Illuminati. The flagecycle is an ordinary, beat-up old bicycle outfitted with a revolving rod behind the seat; hanging from this rod are two leather straps. When the rider pedals the bike, the rod turns and the straps whip the rider on the back. It’s the perfect penitential punishment for the exercise-conscious 80s.

Illuminati, which opened last week in a Cullen, Hennaghan, and Platt production, for what I hope is a very long run, is full of this kind of bizarre and hilarious–yet thought-provoking–juxtaposition. In part a satire on the trappings of organized religion and in part a genuinely serious meditation on the human need for spiritual sustenance, Illuminati succeeds where most religious parodies fail: it addresses real issues, rather than merely venting the personal bitterness of a disgruntled disbeliever (as so many of Christopher Durang’s plays do). To accomplish this, author-actors Larson and Lee serve up an extremely eclectic but deceptively selective stew of images and allusions: from The Hunchback of Notre Dame to The Seventh Seal, from Carmina Burana to country and western, from Michelangelo to Mommie Dearest.

The setting is a bombed-out church in some not-so-distant nightmare future. Pat Robertson is president, Richard Nixon is vice president (a combination that sounds less strange when you recall the stories of Nixon in his final days, leading spontaneous prayer sessions in the Oval Office). The world is recovering from some holocaust; parishioners are dropping like flies from the residue of nerve gas. In this church of the poison mind, a lone keeper of the flame presides: Reverend Eddie, a pill-popping, paranoid power-tripper closing in on his final basketball game with Death. An old man in faded-red long johns and mismatched orange socks, crazy Eddie is tormented by whispering voices in his head–voices he identifies as the Illuminati, an 18th-century secret Masonic society of religious rebels who preached anticlericalism and the perfectibility of mankind. Eddie is also none too fond of “sneaking Jesuits” or gays; on the other hand, in the basketball game of life, he says, “It helps if you have a lot of black people on your side.”

Eddie alternates between writing sermons, hectoring the congregation on the need for a new pulpit and bigger donations, and instructing his sole remaining acolyte, Brother Lawrence, in the ways of his “one true church”–a hodgepodge of medieval arcana, Bible-thumping Protestant fundamentalism, postholocaust reality (the Virgin Mary wears a gas mask), and Reaganish sports anecdotes. (The altar-blessing ceremony closely resembles a football scrimmage; later, Eddie ritually reenacts Christ’s procession through Jerusalem to Golgotha carrying a gigantic basketball hoop instead of a cross.)

Lawrence, Eddie’s devoted and much-maligned servant, is a hunchback; in fact, his characterization is none too subtly modeled on Charles Laughton’s Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame: the grotesquely deformed body, the twisted face, the weirdly distorted speech, and the apelike clambering and leaping about the stage–and into the auditorium, in one of the play’s several ingenious audience-participation bits. Lawrence, like Quasimodo, is an innocent fool of God–a blatant but nevertheless potent symbol of humanity’s capacity for faith in the face of the most trying circumstances. Lawrence must overcome not only his own disability and the effects of the unnamed holocaust but also the contempt of his own church. “You’re not important enough for the devil to fool with,” observes Eddie to Lawrence. “You’re laity.”

Interspersed throughout the play, which essentially focuses on Eddie’s passion and death, is a series of “visions.” These are actually blackout sketches amplifying various themes in the script: the smug piety of “true believers” (in a song called “Jesus Was a Lutheran” that’s worthy of Tom Lehrer in his heyday); the yearning for mortification, martyrdom, and miracles; and the Church’s tradition regarding women: “Two thousand years of oppression–coming up!” chortles a Paul Lynde-ish Saint Paul to his student Timothy–adding, as he heads off on a visit, “Don’t worry; I’ll write.”

Levi Lee plays Eddie as larger than life and lovably loony–a cross between Jonathan Winters and Sterling Hayden in Dr. Strangelove. Larry Larson is, amazingly, totally believable in the potentially offensive role of Brother Lawrence. Both actors perform with vivid spontaneity and athletic skill–never overblown, yet big enough to fill the epic-scale set designed by Jeff Bauer, with “special artistic effects” by Steve Seaberg. Evoking in equal parts the grandeur of a cathedral and the kitschiness of a Hammer Studios gothic horror film, the cavernous and cobwebbed space is seemingly littered with centuries of religious imagery–including a glowing golden pyramid. Bauer and Seaberg’s extraordinary work is complemented by the efforts of costume designer Virgil Johnson, lighting designer Rita Pietraszek (summoning up a genuinely eerie sense of mystery), and sound designers Mary McFadden and Kenn Gorz, who have put together a sound track (sequences from Carmina Burana, electronically altered Gregorian chants, etc) that booms through the auditorium with awesome power.

This may all sound terribly weird and sacrilegious. But what’s weird today, when a serious presidential candidate claims to have saved his TV station from a hurricane through the power of prayer? And in a time when the pope, once deemed infallible, is openly criticized by his own flock for insensitivity to the Church’s neglect of women, where does “sacrilege” end and reform begin?

Illuminati is first and foremost burlesque–performed with screwball-comedy energy and precision under the sure directorial hand of Rebecca Wackler, who with Larson and Lee is a partner in the Atlanta-based Southern Theatre Conspiracy troupe. But the play is guided by a singular vision that embraces, instead of denigrating, the spiritual urges of humankind. There is as much passion as parody here; Illuminati is a genuinely visionary work of theater.

A Change in the Heir, George H. Gorham and Daniel C. Sticco’s new musical comedy, is a little like Once Upon a Mattress as rewritten by Stephen Sondheim. On one hand, it’s a goofy, shallow bit of fluff whose only aim is to make the audience laugh–which it succeeds in doing. But it’s also a work of sophistication and elegance, full of sonorous and witty turns of phrase and overflowing with gorgeous and stimulating music. Why Gorham and Sticco, in their first collaboration, chose to use their talents in the service of such a light project is unclear; perhaps they’re saving up for more challenging efforts in the future. (This is the first completed product of the New Tuners Productions’ ongoing project to develop original works by homegrown writers.)

In any case, A Change in the Heir is a total delight on its own unabashedly silly terms. Its absurd story tells of a pair of royal cousins–a boy raised as a girl and a girl raised as a boy–who, as adults, meet, fall in love, learn each other’s true gender, and fall in love again. The reasons for the deception involve the conflicting schemes of various parents, aunts, and illegitimate cousins to secure the throne of the fairy-tale, once-upon-a-time kingdom in which the show is set.

The script, written by Gorham and Sticco, is full of broad shtick and cornball comedy; the drag theme–with a dashingly tomboyish “Prince Conrad” (Colette Hawley) romancing a husky, ungainly “Princess Agnes” (Jeff Talbott)–is handled with a wacky aplomb that recalls Bugs Bunny cartoons. The score–music by Sticco, words by Gorham–is short on memorable melodies, but long on listenable loveliness. It includes rippling love ballads, fey comic numbers, and intricate, harmonically dazzling choral sequences, all of which develop the already clearly delineated characters. Composer Sticco displays an exceptional talent that’s all the more remarkable considering this is his first show and he’s only in his early 20s. He’s aided immeasurably by the skillful chamber orchestrations of Ken Gist (the French horn and harp made an especially fine impression) and the sharp conducting of pianist Carl Radford.

Best of all is the cast, under the guidance of director Stephen B. Scott and musical director Sticco. Most of these actors also appeared in two previous Scott-Sticco shows, Nightingale and The Future of the American Musical Theatre. They have developed into an absolutely first-rate ensemble. The singing is glorious–not only the individual voices but the blend and dynamic control are splendid, and the actors know how to keep their performances consistent as they move between musical and nonmusical passages. A company like this is a treasure; A Change in the Heir is a must-see for anyone who cares about quality musical theater.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lisa Ebright.