There was a moment when I tried to count the different types of art.
Through the eyeholes of my mask I watched a dancer and operatic singer perform alternately, then together, in the den of a house somewhere in Connecticut, and thought: Eleven. If you count the recorded music.
Then the fire baton twirler glided back into view, and I mentally added one more to the tally.
The moment was a perfect metaphor for the indulgence of The Illuminati Ball, an immersive theatre experience created and directed by artist Cynthia von Buhler. The production, inspired by the Rothschild family’s own, actual Illuminati Ball in 1972 (an elaborate masquerade that became fodder for conspiracists pushing theories of world control by the elite), attempts to saturate itself with similar evocations of mystery, exclusiveness and exoticism. Matching the eclectic nature of von Buhler’s own career, which spans illustration, music, children’s books, and dozens of other projects, her ball takes something of a kitchen sink strategy to achieve its ends.
Audience members are picked up in a limo bus in Manhattan — exact spot revealed a week beforehand — and driven to von Buhler’s estate in an undisclosed location, surrendering their cell phones for the night. The motivation is equal parts pragmatism and theatrics: it ensures von Buhler’s privacy, but also adds nicely to the already cryptic atmosphere.
The night is structured as a dinner party, stretched over eight courses, during which frequent interruptions find guests crisscrossing the estate to witness small scenes that move the story along. The guests are split into five animal kinships of their choosing — pig, monkey, chicken, cow, mouse — each meant to correspond with certain personality traits and desires. As the kinships move through the house as a group, and there are opportunities to split off, each guest may see different scenes and experience the show in different ways.
Aside from the actual story, guests gather to watch various performances which, while their relation to the plot is uncertain, are nonetheless superb. The aforementioned dancing and singing, in a dimly lit room filled with silent, masked strangers was gorgeous beyond just its dreamlike nature. Even better were the aerial dancers, for whom “float” is the closest, but still terribly inadequate, verb available.
That was the pattern: Every separate craft was beautifully done in its own isolated way. The food was art; the drinks were art; the individual masks given to each guest; the several forms the music took; the timing and flow of the night; the carefully constructed and exquisitely detailed set. Individually, they would be judged well; together, they created an overwhelming and unforgettable environment.
The one part that failed was the story that held everything together.
Increasingly, it felt less like a story and more like an outline. Not so much actual plot points, but vague editorial notes left as placeholders: Here, I want the guests to feel that a conspiracy is brewing. Here, the audience should understand there’s been a betrayal. Here, they should know things aren’t what they seem.
But no one went back to fill in the blanks. The drama left in place doesn’t attempt to answer any hows or whys, seeming to rely on the general feeling of mystery to support its own vagueness.
Being immersive theatre, The Illuminati Ball also is subject to a specific side-effect rarely present in traditional theatre. Normally, you might not care who else is in the audience with you. But when guests must engage with the cast and each other, you learn quickly that you are at the mercy of a number of different and unscripted personalities. Put bluntly, if you’re seated next to the most annoying guy in the house, you might make strategic choices about which rooms to visit and when. If you’re the kind of person who tends to get along well with most everyone, it probably won’t be an issue.
It would be negligent not to mention the price, but it’s impossible to boil down the $450 ticket in terms of worth. For one thing, you’d have to factor in the costs of the show, which must be considerable. Given the exquisite dinner and endless cocktails, the hourlong ride in a limo bus, more than a dozen performers of different crafts, and the staff to pull it all off, it would be fair to think of it like a small wedding.
Realistically, a price that high is self-selecting anyway, in the sense that it will attract only those with the disposable income not to mind the loss. It adds to the exclusivity of the affair, combined with the fancy ball dress code (some audience members were better than others at this), and especially with the fact that one doesn’t merely buy tickets to this affair, one must apply and, by implication, may be turned down. This may leave a bad taste in the mouths of some, but then those aren’t really the target audience anyway.
(The application asks playfully personal questions about desire for power and pleasure. Be aware that your responses will be read aloud, and you will be judged silently by others for choosing lazy and clichéd answers.)
The real issue, though, is that guests are left with an array of gorgeous performances covering a spectrum of artistic talents, but a story that leaves them hungry. Worse, one that leaves them not taking it seriously. Forced to interact with a drama that doesn’t quite pay off, we found ourselves cracking jokes and making light of what was meant, I think, to be at least a mostly serious plot. That will be a plus for some people. Possibly many. But the lightheartedness felt out of step with the ambiance being sold to us.
It’s worth asking what value such parsing really has for a production this multidimensional. The lack of a story stuck with me, and it did prevent The Illuminati Ball from reaching the potential it clearly has. It made it feel as if the primary concern was to emulate the feeling of something else, and the plot construction was an inconvenient obstacle to that goal.
Yet back in that den, mesmerized by a performer using her limbs to interpret the clear voice of the soprano behind her, swirling the red wine in my glass, watching the light play off two dozen masked faces, I realized I wouldn’t forget this night.
The Illuminati Ball is on until August 2016. Click here for more information.