I'm not really sure what to tell you about The Illuminati Ball—not because there isn't a lot to say, but because I was sworn to secrecy by somebody wearing an animal mask while pressing a sword against my hand and threatening to cut me up if I talked. (This, after other intimidating masked characters had already confiscated my cell phone and blindfolded me.) And not only am I reluctant to openly provoke the sword-brandishing masked aristocrats of the world, but I also think it's best for you walk into The Illuminati Ball blind. A large part of what makes this peculiar, immersive experience—which transpires about an hour's drive north of NYC—work is that you have no idea what to expect, and sometimes you may even question where the night's fantasy ends and reality begins.
The spectacular lakeside manse you're whisked away to, for instance, actually appears to be owned by two guests at the ball, Cynthia von Buhler and her husband, jazz violinist Russell Farhang, who join the guests at dinner and seem just as surprised as you are when the night takes its unexpected turns. On some level, you know you have come here to see (and be a part of) a fictional show, but the performance, while far from subtle, has a way of seducing you away from your sense of reality into a more subconscious, dreamlike state of mind, where anything is possible.
Immersive, participatory theater is hot right now, with Sleep No More, Then She Fell, and The Grand Paradise all doing brisk ticket sales with ambitious, interactive spectacles. The Illuminati Ball, which is inspired by the famous Surrealist Ball hosted by the Baron and Baroness de Rothschild in 1972, is a more decadent variation on this genre, and highly sensual. (It's also, at $450-per-person, the most expensive.) The evening revolves around an extravagant multi-course dinner party for just thirty guests, all driven up from the city in a limo bus with champagne and a magic show en route. The house is incredible, replete with fountains, a sauna, vaulted ceilings, and other secrets I'll leave out. During the meal, performers in extraordinary hand-made masks work the room and establish their roles in the drama that unfolds throughout the rest of the night. But first, there's the vow of secrecy, then some exquisite opera singing from soprano Kate Lori, as well as silk rope dancing above the dinner tables, and delicious food from chef Erin Orr, whose exceptional first course, sautéed and salted Medjool dates with whiskey, made it clear that the dinner was as essential an element to the show as anything else.
A third of the way through dinner, conflict flared up between the various masked Illuminati members running the show, and we were led away in smaller groups to different parts of the property. The story that emerged, from my vantage point, had the texture of an extra-dark Brothers Grimm fairy tale. The narrative was almost inscrutable, and not the most compelling aspect of The Illuminati Ball, to be honest, though it was fun to get caught up in the interactive aspect of it, even if it was all a bit nonsensical. Eventually a handful of us were escorted across the darkened grounds to a handmade doll house, where we all filed inside and debated the absurd mission which we had been assigned. It had something to do with assassination and Illuminati power struggles, but I didn't really care, it was just interesting to be inside von Buhler's creepy doll house. (Don't miss her handmade dioramas in the dining room, which she built to accompany her children's book But Who Will Bell the Cats?)
It's a strange night, its strangeness accentuated by craft cocktails, rich food, and live music down on the dock. We began to wander around in a sort of delirium; you'd peer into a room and see naked people taking a milk bath, or burlesque dancers with fire performers outside the window behind them. The Illuminati Ball seems to be striving for a sort of bewildering, bohemian excess, with overtones of danger and temptation, and on that level it succeeds. Is it worth the $450 all-inclusive ticket price? I think that all depends on your financial portfolio. My ticket was comped, and the price point is certainly too rich for my blood, but if you're comfortable paying that much for a unique experience, then salute. I don't think you'll be disappointed. You may even make some powerful new friends.
The Illuminati Ball continues twice a month through August.