FEATURING: Jon Sewell, Sunnie Larsen, Kristin Holsather, Richard Cardone, Leith McCombs
PLOT: Part of a larger series of works, this installation features an ensemble of leather clad, deadpan, sexually androgynous and glittering cast members who act out Aleister Crowley’s “Rite of Mars” on a darkened sound stage as a rock opera.
COMMENTS: Theater can be a difficult medium in which to stage ambitious concepts, especially when the form has been grossly over-saturated with trite, treacly fare targeting audiences looking for some token of tourist prestige when sightseeing on Broadway. This type of creative environment could engender creative stagnation, but due to a lack of lavish budgets, theatrical performances often rely on their own intuition and invention to flesh out their imaginative designs.
Initially, what caught my attention about this filmed performance was the sheer nuttiness of its concept: Aleister Crowley’s “Rite of Mars” re-imagined as a rock opera a la Roger Water’s The Wall or Queensrÿche’s “Operation MindCrime” (which, by the operatic vocal stylings and shredding 80’s progressive metal guitar riffs, seems to be where Rites‘ sonic influences lie). The jams can sound kind of goofy, but your reaction depends on whether you find the musical design endearingly nostalgic or insufferable (I found it amusing, yet impressive in its technical prowess).
Before I begin my critique of the recording of the performance, allow us to review the thesis of this production. The following statement of intent appears on the producers’ website:
Our goal at Eleusyve Productions is the presentation of the seven plays comprising Aleister Crowley’s Rites of Eleusis as musical theater pieces in a manner that will render them more fully accessible to a broad and discriminating audience, using music, light, dance and drama to enhance the poetry and symmetry of the original works. It is further our goal to make these completed productions available in as many formats and to as many markets as possible, in order to more widely circulate our artistic interpretations of this material.
The Rites of Eleusis (a series of invocations, penned by the most wicked man dead, Aleister Crowley) are elaborately designed to instill religious ecstasy into the audience. By its very nature, it is intended to be a metaphysical provocation to the sensibilities of the bourgeoisie, calling upon occult theology and decadent subversion to titillate and bring about a spiritual awakening in the viewer—in Crowelian terms at least.
Although the story is not conveyed directly to the audience through a conventional form, it could be described as a piece of inspired storytelling told through bombastic imagery, gestures, kick-ass guitar riffs, and Wagnerian tableaux. Militaristic motifs recur, often spliced with inspirational cues from S&M fashion design (God, do I love me some artfully-crafted sleaze).
All of this makes it all sound rather dreary and humorless, but here’s where this particular passion project delivers: it’s pretty goddamn funny.
Straddling a median between camp and deadpan, the acting ensemble should be commended for displaying a quiet sense of humility about their performance. The gender-bending make-up design was also very attractive and always delightful. The set design, bare and minimal, uses the blackened negative space to eliminate the excess layers of artifice between the audience and the performance—Bertolt Brecht’s “alienation effect,” similar to the gutted, chalk-etched set designs of Lars von Trier’s Dogville. A dystopian science-fiction influence is also present, and the juxtaposition of military uniforms and violent acts with archival war footage—images of bloodshed, conquest, and advancement—have a hypnotizing effect upon the viewer.
The music ranges from interesting to very good, even kickin’ at times. For those who prefer their rock & roll with a little flair, flamboyancy and delicious kitsch flavoring those tasty tunes, you might find yourself doing air guitar while you’re alone and no one else is watching.
The performers are obviously indebted to the Crowleian experiments of Kenneth Anger, the seminal American avant-garde pariah and homoerotic poet of independent cinema (and basically the inventor of the modern music video medium); especially to the mind-meltingly trippy works Invocation of My Demon Brother and Lucifer Rising. Both Anger and Eleusyve Productions strive to inspire a controllable chaos in their audiences and attempt to render vast esoteric mythologies and personal obsessions in a digestible form. The liberated sexuality, free-form slipstream of imagery, experimental impulses, and dalliances with rock-and-roll culture as a medium to present occult theology is also akin to Anger’s early works.
I wouldn’t say that there is anything here that is conceptually radical or deliberately offensive to Juedo-Christian sensibilities, but if you don’t mind some decent 80’s inspired jams, want to grab a beer after a long day, smoke some grass, and relax, then why not watch a low-budget rock opera? It sure beats having to watch “Cats” or some other sanitized dreck.