Monday, June 6, 2011

Welcome to the Magical World of Tony Kushner's 'The Illusion'

Amanda Quaid, Peter Bartlett, and Finn Wittrock

Here’s a trivia question for you.

What do these two plays have in common: A Free Man of Color, John Guare’s off-kilter take on US history that played last fall at the Vivian Beaumont, and Tony Kushner’s The Illusion, now on display at the Signature Theatre Company’s Peter Norton Space?

The answer is, they both give a nod to a 17th century French playwright by the name of Pierre Corneille, prolific and successful in his time but rather less well-known nowadays than his contemporaries Molière and Racine.

In Guare’s play, Corneille is the supposed father of the title character, Jacques Cornet. For his part, Kushner based The Illusion on Corneille’s L’Illusion Comique, in which Corneille wove elements of classicism and commedia del’arte into a kind of tragi-comedy along the lines of one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays,” say Measure for Measure or A Winter’s Tale. (Come to think of it, that tragi-comedy motif does seem to run through Guare’s work as well.)

The Illusion is the third and last of Kushner’s plays being presented by Signature this season (following Angels in America and The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures.) Originally produced in 1988, three years before Angels was unveiled, The Illusion is unlike pretty much everything that Kushner has written since, a work that owes as much to Shakespeare as to Corneille (I detected references to Hamlet, The Merchant of Venice, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and The Tempest) and one that uses heightened language, poetry, and romantic imagery, while throwing in a mix of modernism, all to great effect.

Being unfamiliar with L’Illusion Comique, I can only discuss The Illusion based on its own merits, of which there are plenty, despite Kushner’s seeming unwillingness to acknowledge that pencils have erasers as well as points (which is to say the play, which does sag occasionally, could stand a 20-minute trim).

The Illusion opens very dramatically and spookily in the dark (the spookiness is splendidly aided and abetted by Bray Poor’s just-right sound design that includes creepy echoes and hawk screeches). The elderly Pridamant of Avignon (depicted here most magnificently by David Margulies, one of the production’s three terrific stage veterans) has entered the grotto of the magician Alcandre.

Pridamant is desirous of finding out what has become of long-estranged son, whom he kicked out of his home 15 years previously. It seems that time has softened some of the edges, and Pridament wants to bring about some sort of reconciliation before he dies. Alcandre (the resplendent Lois Smith, veteran actor #2, in a role usually played by a man) agrees to help, and as the play unfolds, Alcandre shows Pridamant various scenes from the son’s life.

In the three scenes, which shift in style and mood, the son’s personality runs the gamut from callow romantic to callous womanizer. Finn Wittrock does a fine job in the shifting roles, as do Sean Dugan as his chief rival, and Amanda Quaid and Merritt Wever as the women in his life. Wever plays a spunky maid of the type often found in a Molière play, though I must confess she is so modern in her outlook that at one point I half expected her to start singing  "The Miller’s Son" from Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music.

Peter Bartlett, veteran actor #3, does a laugh-out-loud star turn in the wildly comic role of Matamore, another would-be rival, who transforms over time into a dreamy and lost soul seeking to find his way to a life of solitude...on the moon, no less

While I am handing out praise, I want to recognize the splendid original music by Nico Muhly, the costume design by Susan Hilferty, the set design by Christine Jones, and the best swordplay I have seen in a very long time, thanks to fight director Rick Sordelet. All of the strange and powerful proceedings are well-directed by Michel Mayer.

On many different levels, this lovely play is infused with magic, in which Alcandre is assisted by her (sometimes) deaf and mute servant (the excellent Henry Stram), who offers his own touch of strangeness and shape-shifting to the goings-on.

But ultimately, it is the magic of theater that prevails—a wonderful message for any dedicated theater buff to walk away with, and a splendid way to bid adieu to the old Peter Norton Space as the Signature Theatre Company prepares to move to its new home (designed by architect Frank Gehry) down the street. 

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