While the Central Kentucky theater community might be too small to produce bona fide "stars" a la Broadway, it is likely even the most casual local theatergoer has stumbled upon a performance or two of Ryan Case or Adam Luckey, two of the region's most celebrated, and consistently working, actors.
For those who haven't caught a show featuring them, now is your chance. They co-star in a must-see revival of Larry Larson and Levi Lee's religious satire Some Things You Need to Know Before the World Ends (A Final Evening With the Illuminati), produced by Balagula Theatre Company.
Formidable as individual performers, the duo is electric, entertaining and unabashedly professional when they combine forces. They make each better.
Directed by Balagula founder Natasha Williams, the pair take the audience on a scintillatingly funny ride through the absurdities of overly organized religion while probing the darker side of a faith turned in on itself, growing sick with paranoia, self-inflicted suffering and fear.
The play — first produced at Balagula, with the same stars, in 2005 — follows the Rev. Eddie (Luckey), a well-educated clergyman slowly descending into a religious-themed conspiracy theory as he composes his final sermon ("Life Is Like a Game of Basketball") and his faithful and ostensibly less enlightened assistant, resident hunchback Brother Lawrence (Case).
When Lawrence claims to have visions, the reverend dismisses them in a fit of comical spiritual arrogance.
Of course, the fact that Lawrence's vision was a woman in a silver lamé jumpsuit who exited via spacecraft does not help his case.
Further visions follow, some as ridiculous as the first, while others are patently sad. And then funny again — punctuating the cast's remarkable timing. Case and Luckey are able to switch thematic gears at break-neck speed, all without compromising the play's sense of pace and continuity.
In fact, the hallmark of this production is its ability to elicit multiple emotions at once — gut-busting laughter is just as likely to be sparked by some intellectual quandary of the absurd as it is to embrace slapstick physical gags, monologues of heart-wrenching tenderness or lightly sprinkled pop culture asides.
It is not a dark tale with a few laughs scattered in to make it palatable, and it is not a light romp with heavy themes thrown in to appear meaningful. Rather, in this production, the two are often one and the same, with the show's signature scenes ringing with fused elements of scarred tragedy and sublime humor, like when the Rev. Eddie challenges Death to a game of basketball.
Yes, there is basketball. There is even a mention of new University of Kentucky men's basketball coach John Calipari, one of the locally flavored jokes Williams slips into the script.
Williams, in the playbill's "director's sermon," asserts a conviction that faith and humor, including poking fun at the absurdities of one's beliefs, are not mutually exclusive. In directing this production, she says she frequently asked herself during rehearsals, "What would Jesus laugh at?"
According to Williams' directorial vision, Jesus has a well-developed sense of humor. Each scene pulls at a thread of over-produced theology until the reverend finds himself in a full-on crisis of faith. It is revelatory of Williams' wry irreverence and loyalty to deeper examinations and cross-examinations of truths that are not always comfortable.
Balagula first produced this play four years ago in much more limited space and with a different directorial vision. Not unlike the theater itself, which continues to expand its programming and arsenal of technical bells and whistles (the current show is artfully lighted by designer Gareth Evans), this production represents a significant leap in the organization's evolution, one that will have you saying amen.