Sympathy for Mass Suicide

The Laboratory Theater’s entry into The Brick Theater’s Antidepressant Festival, Le Mirage, is a rich and rewarding exploration of the vicious extremities of faith and outlier thought systems where religion is nothing but a fatal intellectual virus. Le Mirage dramatizes the story of an intricately ritualized, self-annihilating religious sect, The Order of the Solar Temple, using pre-existing theological tracts and dissonant choreography. The text of the hour-long performance piece is taken from lecture transcripts and texts published by this bizarre French Canadian extremist group.

The cult’s beliefs incorporated a confluence of the rituals of ancient esoteric secret societies (like the Knights of the Templar and the Rosicrucian society), Holy Grail legends and fervent ecological purification ideals. The end goal of this sinister theology was to persuade the cult members to purify themselves by transmitting their soul to the planet Jupiter via mass suicide and ritual murder.

The cult’s history is bloody and malignant. In 1994, one of the group’s founders allegedly labeled the infant son of a follower the antichrist and ordered that the baby be stabbed to death with a wooden stake. The cult members obeyed with enthusiasm and shortly thereafter began a series of “Jupiter transit ceremonies” that ultimately left behind 74 bodies, neatly arranged in star patterns.

Since plastic supermarket bags were a symbol of the ecological pollution the Order believed was corrupting humanity, many of the suicides involved members tying the bags around their necks to suffocate slowly.

A talented and beautifully committed trio of actors (Corey Dargel, Sheila Donovan and Oleg Dubson) convey a range of vivid impressions within the taut, abstract framework constructed by director Yvan Greenberg. The trio portray a fictitious Las Vegas chapter of The Order in the last stages of preparation for departure to Jupiter.

The cast’s French-accented readings of the Order’s writings are underscored with a satisfying soundtrack (designed by Greenberg) that includes ethereal New Age music (composed by François B. Nouvel-Ậgel, Richard Wagner and Gabriel Fauré), bursts of jolting static and ominous rhythmic pounding.

The easy choice in a production of this sort would be a didactic condemnation of the group that dismisses the feverous devotees as aberrational lunatics. But the immediacy the actors bring to their recitations and the purposeful purposelessness of their intriguing ritual dances somehow make the cultists’ piteous need for connection sympathetic. These lunatics come across as real people willing to believe that a personal invitation to a degrading death will erase lifetimes of unfilled longing.

Moments in the performance suggest that the Laboratory Theater is working to be inheritors of 1950s beat poets. During a long section at the beginning to the piece, the cadence of their voices and the hypnotic movement are slow to transform into deeper forms and Audrey Hepburn’s endless beat poet parody in Funny Face comes unpleasantly to mind. And the elements the group incorporates to depict the Las Vegas setting are never interesting and consistently unbeneficial. But once the structure coalesces into a decidedly sinister invitation to join the Order on a journey to “a new world made of other times, other heavens” it is hard to look away.

Dargel, Donovan and Dubson are compellingly genuine through the piece, and the final images of the cult's painfully deliberate suicides are especially searing and potent. The lasts few minutes of their performances will haunt you long after you leave the theater.

Le Mirage is an unforgettable and chilling experience of religious fervency that should not be missed during its short festival run.

For tickets and showtimes, consult The Brick Theater’s Antidepressant Festival website at www.bricktheater.com/antidepressant.

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