Hip Shot: Illuminate: A Martial Arts Experience

Warehouse – 645 New York Avenue NW

Remaining Performances:

Friday, July 15th at 8:00 p.m.
Sunday, July 17th at 9:15 p.m.
Saturday, July 23rd 4:15 p.m.
Sunday, July 24th 12:00 p.m.

They say: "Conflict, enlightenment... and glowing weapons. See martial artists strike, dodge, jump, break, and battle in the dark with LED equipment. Enjoy live drumming, original music, and comedy. Witness a hero's walk from student to master."

Ryan's Take: The badass laser ninjas of Illuminate rocked the Fringe preview so hard that this critic ran from his seat, grabbed his editor, and breathlessly called “dibs!”. So I was crazy excited to check out what I thought would be simply a kick-ass combo of laser-light show and martial arts exposition. What I and the rest of the near-capacity crowd were treated to at the Warehouse Theater was a stunning, immersive, and fully-formed piece of theater. Producer/Director/Black Belt Johnny Shryock and his ensemble have brought a level of craft and precision rare to Fringe theater. Illuminate kicks a lot ass and does so with heaping piles of heart.

The story is simple. Ancient, really. An archetypal, capital-H Hero has his body and spirit crushed by a group of Villains. He seeks training in martial arts from a local Master. He makes Friends, experiences Moments of Glory, is Humbled, and Rises Again. Inner peace ensues. After a whole lot of ass-kicking, of course. A tale as old as storytelling itself. The technique is what makes Illuminate so special.

Performed in total darkness, the black belt fighters of Illuminate Martial Arts strap glowing lights to their bodies and weapons before launching into demonstrations of martial arts techniques honed over decades. But beyond providing simple eye-candy, they apply their homegrown technology to a sophisticated storytelling trick. Characters are not tied to any one actor, but are instead identified purely by color. Pale blue for the wise Master. Bright green for our neophyte Hero. Furious red for the Villains. It’s a storytelling gambit that pays off huge, allowing the company to choreograph scenes that play to each performers' strengths and give everyone their chance to shine.

Various forms of high-end buttkickery are on display. Hand-to-glowing hand. Nunchaku-to-radioactive-nunchaku. But lest you think that Illuminate is a one-trick pony, Shryock and company smartly change things up with a few surprises that I refuse to ruin for you. Let’s just say that just when things start to look familiar, the company lets you know that they’re in on the joke. The fact that they are able to spoof themselves so effectively while maintaining excellent standards of craft only makes the experience more engaging. By the end of the night, the crew had engendered so much good will that the crowd hooted and hollered in affection at the guy sweeping up bits of smashed brick.

More than a feast for the eyes, Illuminate is a multisensory experience with as good a sound design as any show I have seen this year. Shryock, having spent years as a freelance sound designer, fashions an incredible soundscape out of live drumming (played by alternating members of the ensemble) seamlessly blended with his original recorded music. The plot and themes are laid out through excellent recorded narration performed by Company member Brad Lust performs the recorded narration that keeps the plot and themes clear. He also proves to be as adept at drumming as he is at breaking through concrete blocks with his glowing fist.

One of the most impressive things about Illuminate is that the company is comprised mostly of theater newcomers, Shryock himself being the exception. Stick fighter Nick Oben is a chef. Nunchuku-wielding Jamie Noguchi is a graphic designer. Brothers Zach and Mike Stahly are pursuing advanced degrees in education and philosophy, respectively. The director's brother Charles Shryock, IV is an English teacher and bo master whose students have probably learned not to mess with him. Lust, a master of Drunken Boxing [EDITOR'S NOTE: Shut up, it's a thing.] is a freaking fireman

All share a lifelong passion for martial arts. And now here they are at the Fringe with the opportunity to share their passion, art, and expertise with a whole new community. Illuminate is the kind of discovery that makes the Fringe festival so special. My advice: grab tickets while you can.

See it if: You like awesome things that are also rad.

Skip it if: You spend your Fringe scouring for straight plays.

An earlier version of this review misidentified one of the performers. The error has been corrected.

  • gigi

    Saw it last night, I recommend sitting near the front, so you don't miss anything. I missed some of the floor action where I was sitting. Loved the enthusiasm the actors displayed, a refreshing change from the too cool for school attitude that seems to be the norm these days.

    My only complaint: the lack of usher, meant a kid talked loudly throughout the show and his grandparents did nothing to stop him.

  • Mary Mitchell-Donahue

    Got my tix for Sunday - can't wait to see you guys!

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  • Susanne Mendiola

    I'm in total agreement with this ass-kicking review! I was there opening night -- great credit to the entire cast and crew for taking a familiar story line and re-framing it in a totally unique way. Illuminate is an amazing display of physicality, sound and lighting. Go see it!

  • Jamie Noguchi

    It's so gratifying to see someone get so excited for what we've put together. Thank you for the freaking epic review!!!

  • Karen

    So excited to see this! Johnny has worked with Pinky Swear for the past couple of years and we love him. Love that this is something completely new to Fringe.