BWW Review: Cynthia Von Buhler Illuminates the Obscure in the Lavish, Erotic, Yet Playful 'Illuminati Ball'
Seconds after posting leaked photos of Cynthia von Buhler's Illuminati Ball on my Facebook page, I got a call from my Upper East Side neighbor, Equinox buddy, and former Fishtail happy hour mate. No hello or how are you. Just, "Did you go to a sex party?! Like Stanley Kubrick Eyes Wide Shut? Spec-tacular!"
"No," I told the Mary Matalin to my James Carville, "I did not go to a 'sex party,' as you put it. It was an immersive theatrical excursion an hour outside the city based on the 1972 Surrealist Ball of the Baron and Baroness de Rothschild, by the director of the immersive play in Williamsburg I told you about: Speakeasy Dollhouse: The Bloody Beginning."
Of course my incorrigible neighbor preferred to believe I had experienced something like Tom Cruise's lavish yet disturbing 48 hours in the 1997 film. The Illuminati Ball is indeed spectacular, though without divulging details I am sworn to keep secret, I cannot do justice to an experience which began on a rainy Saturday evening at 6PM on the Upper East Side---where a luxury limousine bus picked up 30 formally-attired "candidates" for the Illuminati, and seven or so hours later, deposited what seemed like old friends to the same location---after a sumptuous eight-course meal by Erin Orr, craft cocktails by mixologist Bootleg Greg, and limitless red wine.
The people with whom I attended the Ball were diverse, friendly, and outgoing: artists, businesspeople, tech folks, a sprinkling of lawyers and doctors, a Broadway producer, and a law student. Two boisterous LA couples rounded out the party. The observant and good-natured (if sarcastic) Vacanti introduces guests by first name, profession, and hopes in life, deepening the intimacy established during the boozy bus ride. Deftly played by Luka Fric, Vacanti is the NSA of the Ball.
Like the Speakeasy Dollhouse productions, the audience is part of the play, but because attendance is limited to just 30 guests, the experience is more intense and immediate. Guests choose an animal kinship in advance: pig, monkey, mouse, cow, or chicken. The application defines the traits of each animal. Candidates both dine with and follow their animal leader all night, so it's fair to say that there are five distinct (yet parallel) ways to experience The Illuminati Ball. Pig was my kinship, which I recommend for various reasons, not the least of which is the chance to wear the sparkly pink mask, perfect for a girly lover of bling.
Upon crossing the threshold of the lakefront estate, one feels like Alice in Wonderland, overwhelmed by the spectacle but not sure if one has shrunk or the house has grown. That's by design: Von Buhler has been making dollhouses, and thus playing with the very concept of scale, all her life.
Much of the show takes place in the grand dining room with taxidermy-lined walls and large windows on both ends of the room providing views of the grounds. Even inside the rooms of the house, which function as sets (designed by Buhler herself), one feels immersed in nature. The vaulted ceilings immediately draw one's gaze upward, even before the astounding aerialists, Rachel Boyadjis and Sara Zepezauer (co-directors of Circus Solaris also known as The Lost Boys), begin to perform.
Guests were awestruck as Boyadjis and Zepezauer ascended and descended the silks and rotated around the trapeze in a singular display of grace and power. (Captivated by this unusual form of movement, I signed up for classes a week after the Ball, so for me the evening had a lasting impact; I'm hooked, literally.)
As with The Bloody Beginning, The Illuminati Ball challenges comfort levels even of the adventurous, not least by confiscating phones so guests are off the grid for six hours. Naked dancers and fire throwers greet guests as they disembark the bus. The play's action is diffuse, extending into other rooms, where guests may take a milk bath or sauna, or go outside to skinny dip in the large lake under the moon and stars. A video montage, created by von Buhler and introduced by the evening's charismatic ringleader, the Pig King (Vincent Cinque), raised more questions than it answered.
The evening featured "power struggles, morality tests, and anthropomorphic escapades" among characters donning masks by artist Kat Mon Dieu, who also plays the Baroness with great feeling. Circe (Delysia La Chatte) exudes a natural eroticism. Her edgy burlesque dance in the bedroom to a song Prodigy of Mobb Deep wrote specially for The Illuminati Ball to be performed with opera singer Katie Kat, dazzled the group gathered against the walls (some of whom had just skinny dipped in the warm lake under moonlight).
The Illuminati figures prominently in some of Prodigy's music, so this was a natural choice. But the seamlessness of the rap-opera fusion made this scene one of the evening's high points, while reminding us that blurring of boundaries (including generic ones) is von Buhler's signature.
Nothing is casual in a von Buhler production; everything signifies, and reflects imaginatively on, other aspects of the production. The oft-noted dreamlike quality of her work stems from the conscious interplay between reality and fantasy. But the effect is heightened here because on the one hand, the masks, the secrecy, and the alcohol work to move us out of reality; on the other, the scenes and décor are so vivid and distinct that they seem hyper-real.
The goal of the extraordinary detail in hyperrealistic works of art (rooted in the philosophy of Jean Baudrillard) is to draw out a reality not evident in the photograph that is the basis of a painting or sculpture in that mode. Given the aesthetic-historical inspiration for The Illuminati Ball--surrealism--it does not strike me as farfetched to say that von Buhler questions even the basis of her creation. That is, surrealism is ultimately about the play of fantasy and reality. Yet the Illuminati Ball flirts with hyperrealism, which, if not opposed to surrealism, sets about finding or remaking reality in quite different ways.
To what end von Buhler is playing with all this I can't speculate without revealing plot details, but certainly Kat Mon Dieu's consummate masks and costumes are essential to the deeper meanings of an evening which is decidedly not a sex party.
The burlesque dancer, actress, artist, nurse, and mother of three grown children cites her Iroquois heritage on her maternal side ("most likely Mohawk or Ganienkeh, or People of the Flint") as a main influence for her art: "I used to make toys, clothes, hats, dolls, and little houses out of things I found in nature as a child." As an adult, her materials are more durable, but her creations remain "symbolic, spiritual, and nature-based." The Vulture mask for Prodigy, for instance, draws on Egyptian symbols.
As for the $450 ticket? Given the gourmet food, the cocktails, the transportation, the intimacy (the ratio of guests to actors is 2:1), the entertainment (a legitimate hip hop star, top notch opera singer, dancer, and aerialists), the elegant setting, and the evening's duration, the price isn't excessive---not with Hamilton tickets what they are, and any decent shrink in the city charging $300 a pop.
And the less tangible aspects of the evening-camaraderie and surprise-cannot be quantified. Billed as Eyes Wide Shut meets Burning Man, The Illuminati Ball is better described as Eyes Wide Shut meets the Gilmore Girls (I'm thinking of the secret society event Rory attends with Logan). If Amy Sherman-Palladino had written an erotic Gilmore Girls for theatergoers, it would look something like this. Vacanti even evokes Michel, the ever snarky French assistant at the Independence Inn. Notwithstanding elements of intrigue and betrayal, the Illuminati Ball is more whimsical than ominous, and an experience not to be missed.
The Illuminati Ball continues on August 20, September 10, October 8, October 15, and October 29.