Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXII, No. 42
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
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DOOM AND DEVILTRY: Reverend Eddie (Doug Lavanture, right) preaches hell fire and brimstone and the end of the world to his loyal hunchbacked assistant Brother Lawrence (Dave Holtz) in the setting of a dilapidated church filled with the paraphernalia and refuse of contemporary civilization in Theatre Intime’s production of Levi Lee and Larry Larson’s comedy, “Some Things You Need to Know Before the World Ends (A Final Evening with the Illuminati),” at the Hamilton Murray Theater through October 18.

Theatre Intime Presents a Timely Post-Apocalyptic Sermon: “Some Things You Need to Know Before the World Ends”

Donald Gilpin

Yes, this is a comedy. Under normal circumstances, I could probably assume you‘d realize that a play titled Some Things You Need to Know Before the World Ends (A Final Evening With the Illuminati) couldn‘t be anything but satiric. But at last Thursday‘s opening night, on a day when the stock market tanked again en route to the worst week in Wall Street history, the timeliness of this end-of-the world theme was frightening.

But no. Theatre Intime is not offering a doomsday scenario on the decline of Western Civilization, nor an economic treatise on the consequences of the failures of capitalism, nor an investigation of what you should do in the coming recession with what’s left of your retirement account, your stock portfolio, and the rest of your life.

In Some Things You Need to Know Before the World Ends the genre is satiric comedy, the conspiracies are the occult religious ones of the Illuminati rather than sub-prime mortgage sellers and Wall Street wheeler-dealers, and the principal villain is the black-robed figure of Death himself. Grim subject matter notwithstanding, Some Things You Need to Know…, which takes place in the small Hamilton Murray Theater cleverly transformed into a dilapidated, post-apocalyptic church looking like an overflowing junkyard, might even provide a certain comic relief from the daily assaults of the economic, political, and world news.

First performed by the authors Levi Lee and Larry Larson themselves in Atlanta in 1981, Some Things You Need to Know… presents a church service. The paranoid, half-crazed Reverend Eddie (Doug Lavanture), decked out in his red long underwear, disheveled hair and beard, prepares to deliver his final sermon: “Life is Like a Basketball Game.” The hunch-backed, friar-robed, skull-capped, green-sneakered Brother Lawrence (Dave Holtz) is his eager, loyal assistant in the strange proceedings that include a series of wild skits embodying Reverend Eddie’s idiosyncratic visions and culminate in a final showdown on the basketball court between Reverend Eddie and Death.

The richly detailed, chaotic setting is filled with the ramshackle vestiges of civilization, some that will be directly pertinent to the evening’s proceedings and some completely random: old tires, a TV set, a stuffed bird, a suit of armor, a toilet, a skull, an hourglass, graffiti everywhere, boards over the windows, a basketball, a cowbell, a large illuminated eyeball, chicken wire, an old bicycle, a pitchfork, a typewriter, a mirror, old trunks, a highway construction cone, a fire extinguisher, a chandelier, a candelabra, a distorted altar upstage center, a fog machine and applause signs (operated by Brother Lawrence), and a raised pulpit festooned in black on stage left.

The theater audience is the congregation, and, yes, significant audience participation is involved. Ushers in long white robes welcome them and later bring around the collection plate. Reverend Eddie in his paranoia and manic intensity engages the congregation in a number of unexpected, sometimes shocking ways throughout the evening.

Assisted by his faithful helper, Father Eddie commences his church service — an incongruous, often humorous mix of religious profundities with the mundane trivialities of daily life. His catechism is sprinkled with questions about basketball trivia and the capital of Missouri. The congregation must participate in a mock-religious responsive reading before being dismissed to go in peace to enjoy the intermission refreshments. And interspersed throughout are Reverend Eddie’s fits of panic and pique, such as when he insists on raising the house lights to find out who’s been whispering, or to investigate exactly who put what into, and who took what out of, the collection plate.

The target of the satire here is more the human foibles and the hypocrisies of excessive religiosity than it is religion itself, but some of the mockery, including a scene of holy communion with Death and another scene of the Passion of Reverend Eddie, complete with basketball backboard and net instead of crucifix, may be offensive to those who take their religion seriously.

Intermingled throughout is a progression of bizarre and mostly funny interludes, presumably from Reverend Eddie’s dreams or visions, in which St. Paul and St. Timothy, dressed as construction workers with their yellow hardhats, lunchboxes, and plenty of corny gender and Bible jokes, discuss the role of women in the church; a pair of country music singers intone a rousing rendition of “Jesus Was a Lutheran and I’m a Lutheran Too,” and an earnest applicant for sainthood undergoes a bureaucratic nightmare then struggles hard in choosing his preferred gruesome method of achieving martyrdom.

Music supplies an additional rich ingredient to the proceedings. Ominous, electronically distorted Gregorian chants set the mood between scenes, and a range of rock, disco, and melodramatic movie music provide a comic incongruity for several entertaining scenes.

This Intime production, directed by William Martinez, Princeton University sophomore, effectively brings together an array of challenging production components — a complex series of lighting and sound cues, in addition to the abundance of unusual props and set features. The pace moves rapidly through numerous scenes in rapid succession. The two well rehearsed, capable young actors work together with natural skill and familiarity in their sharply contrasting roles.

The comedy is uneven, however, and the book is so strange — in the oddities of its characters, in its subject matter and the unseen presence of the mystical Illuminati as a constant offstage influence, in some of the shocking religious material and violence in language and action — that the “Final Evening with the Illuminati” is less than 100 percent entertaining. The small opening night audience was only sporadically engaged and amused, despite the first-rate Theatre Intime production.

Mr. Lavanture plays the power-hungry, manic minister with intensity and sustained conviction from his opening scene lying on his downstage bed contemplating a skull, then reacting with paranoid anger to the turn-off-your-cell-phones announcement until his final scene as he battles Death on the basketball court. He presides over the service with an authority and unpredictable irascibility that runs the gamut from funny to frightening.

Mr. Holtz, completely affable, obliging and amusing — reminiscent of Marty Feldman’s dry-witted assistant in the movie Young Frankenstein (Mel Brooks’ spoof on the Frankenstein story) — is an excellent foil to the dark, harsh demeanor of Reverend Eddie. Both actors skillfully switch costumes and characters to cover a range of different supporting roles.

“Don’t take this show or yourself too seriously,” advises the Director’s Note in the program, and Mr. Martinez has deftly, for the most part, struck an appropriate balance in emphasizing the humorous aspects of this ominously titled comedy. Theatre Intime’s Some Things You Need to Know Before the World Ends deserves a bigger audience for its second weekend of performances.

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