If Bruce Lee had played Lite-Brite as a youngster, Illuminate is the kind of show he may have conceived. Instead kudos go to Johnny Shryock, producer, director and composer of Illuminate, who performs with an incredible cast: Jamie Noguchi, Charles Shryock IV, Nick Oben, Mike Stahly, Brad Lust, and Zach Stahly. Together they wrote and choreographed the production. They are also black belt instructors.
Illuminate begins innocently. A sweet-looking guy comes out, shakes hands with some of the audience, and greets us with a friendly smile. Then he’s surrounded by thugs and beaten up. The lights go down and don’t come up again for another 70 minutes.
But sitting in the dark is the perfect place to be. Through the creative design of lighted weapons and gloves that shine, the cast transforms into supernatural martial artists. Their bodies are barely visible, but the sounds of their kicks and thuds to the ground clue you in to what’s happening. Plus the swirls and accents by the glowing appendages are awesome to watch.
Some favorites: the nunchaku scene by Noguchi that featured red and blue lights on the weapon turning it into a psychedelic pinwheel as it traced his body. Hilarious was the scene with differently-sized sticks, one longer than the other: I’m guessing this was the “Staff versus Stick” scene by Oben and Noguchi. The rope dart was also stunning and suspenseful. Attached to a huge leash, the dart threatened to make impact with the audience, but Johnny Shryock yanked it back just in time.
Every scene featured a display of skill and coordination that were fantastic. Voice-overs offered some information about the different fighting styles and their histories. I almost wished I sat closer to the front rows: the Warehouse is a tiny venue and during some of the scenes that had characters seated on the floor I could not see what they were doing. Plus being closer to the stage would have been similar to being in the first car of a rollercoaster: nothing between you and the action.
This is not only a visual and kinetic event, but also a musical one: drums occupy one corner of the stage, played by Stahly, Lust, Noguchi and Johnny Shryock when they are not battling one another. Mats are sometimes rolled out for interactions, adding crash landings of bodies to the acoustic landscape.
The musical score contains funny references to a popular film and some dramatic elements to enhance the physical prowess on display. I liked the way there was a loose storyline connecting the scenes, one of which includes the quintessential brick-breaking feats.
Illuminate is a multi-sensory explosion of fighting techniques amped up a notch by adding LED equipment. It’s also a great night of physical theater, making me think of how similar martial artists’ training may be to any artist’s education. They all require creativity, discipline, and perseverance. Or as one of the voice-overs says in Illuminate: “Humility is the foundation of all learning.”
Illuminate: A Martial Arts Experience has 4 more performances at The Warehouse, 645 New York Avenue NW, Washington, DC.