KPBS AIRDATE: NOVEMBER 12, 1999
Theater is all about illusion. “The Illusion” is all about theater. Well, not only theater. It’s also about reality versus artifice, mortality, redemption and lust… but mostly, it’s about love: filial, friendly and passionate. And since a reclusive sorcerer takes center stage, it’s about magic. Which brings us back to theater.
The play, originally called “L’Illusion Comique,” “The Theatrical Illusion,” was written in 1636 by Pierre Corneille, one of the great playwrights of the 17th century golden age of French theater. But it’s been adapted by that highly acclaimed, prototypically American playwright of the late 20th century, Tony Kushner. Both Corneille and Kushner are better known for a later work: in the case of the Frenchman, the neoclassic tragedy “El Cid.” For our countryman, it’s the mind-bending, Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning “Angels in America.”
So “The Illusion” has a pretty heavy pedigree, but it’s basically a tender-hearted, classical comedy, populated by archetypal characters: the irresistible, oversexed, lovesick but faithless youth; the high-born, beautiful and romantic object of his affections; her tyrannical father, her saucy maid, and her alternate suitors: a hot-headed young nobleman and a bumbling, comic old coot.
The plot centers on a rich, pompous lawyer, who enlists the help of a wizard in finding the son he disowned 15 years ago. The sorcerer shows the old man scenes from his son’s life, in which the boy’s name and identity change, but his pursuit of an unattainable woman remains constant. The story of the young lovers is a 3-scene play-within-a-play, conjured up in a dark cave. Like Prospero in Shakespeare’s “Tempest,” written some 20 years before this play, the magician is a stand-in for the magical illusions of theater. Like the befuddled father, we, the audience, try to untangle the enigmas. Each time we’re seduced into a scene, it dissolves; then the characters reappear in new identities.
Kushner has canned the tight verse of Corneille, the mind-numbing 12-syllable French couplets, and changed them into fresh, lush, freewheeling, contemporary language, delivered, on special occasion, in rhyme. In this beautiful production, the design work is outstanding: a darkly lit, magical setting; eerie, mystical music and sound; resplendent costumes. And there are stellar performances, especially Ron Campbell as the hilarious, Don Quixote-like fantasist and self-promoter, Matamore, and Mike Genovese as the intense, whimsical, unpredictable sorcerer.
But the real magician here is director Todd Salovey, who has a natural affinity for the supernatural, a true feel for the ethereal, as he’s proved in prior Rep productions, most notably, “The Dybbuk.” He loves dreamy classics, and once again, he’s created a magnificent world of pure enchantment. “The Illusion” is a perfect match for Salovey’s spiritual skillfulness, and it has the extra bonus of allowing him to spotlight the breath-taking, heart-stopping magic of theater. The illusions of the theater are a recurring metaphor for the illusions of love. In theater and in love, there are unexpected twists, there is “infinite mutability,” and nothing is quite what it seems.
©1999 Patté Productions Inc.