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A CurtainUp Berkshires Review

The Illusion
By Shirley Safran

Love is the world’s infinite mutability; Lies, hatred, murder even, are all knit up in it; it is the inevitable blossoming of its opposites, a magnificent rose smelling faintly of blood. A dream which makes the world seem . . . an illusion. The art of illusion is the art of love, and the art of love is the blood-red heart of the world. At times I think there is nothing else.
---Pierre Corneille, The Illusion.
Austin Durant as Alexandre in <i>The Illusion</i>
Austin Durant as Alexandre in The Illusion
(Photo: Kevin Sprague )
The opening production of Tony Kushner’s " free adaptation" of Pierre Corneille’s 17th century play, The Illusion, marks the 10th anniversary of the new Unicorn Theatre. It was also the last production of the old Unicorn, so this revisitation takes another look at the play 10 year’s later. Interesting idea. Doubly interesting since any play with Tony Kushner’s name on it is a theatrical event and therefore merits our serious attention.

Cranwell Resort

Kushner whose wide-ranging intellect, passionate engagement with the moral, political and artistic issues of our time and interest in history informs all his plays, is also a dramatic poet. Language pours forth from him in torrential outbursts that startle and amaze. It is therefore not to surprising that he should be drawn to adapt the work of a 17th century playwright— one of a triumvirate of contemporaries which includes Moliere and Racine. They were all great dramatic poets.

Pridament, a lawyer, has come to a cave in the south of France to plead with a magician, Alcandre, to help him find his long-lost son whom he banished fifteen years previously. He sums up his plea as follows: "I destroyed my son. My only child. Years ago. When he was barely a step past being a boy. He seemed uncontrollable, wild, dangerous to me in all sorts of little ways. I loved him so much I wanted to strangle him. I wanted to snap his spine sometimes in a ferocious embrace. Everything about him seemed calculated to drive me to distraction, and did."

To effect this reconciliation, Pridament seeks the prodigal son far and wide. Alcandre agrees to assist him, but insists that he must first witness three "visions" from the past in which the son appears. Thus Pridament recognizes his son, but his name and circumstances are different each time. The same is true of all the other characters in each "vision."

Pridament’s confusion intensifies with each episode. The "visions" chart the son’s romantic adventures from his innocent infatuation with a first love, through maturity until, in the last vignette, he betrays his wife and pays the ultimate price. It is a short history of love, beginning with exuberance and tenderness and ending in violence.

The other characters are the young woman who loves the son, her maid/companion, a rival suitor, and a lunatic who wanders in to great comic effect. Think of a three-part mirror which swivels to reflect a new reality but is, of course, another fantasy. Through it all, Pridament watches transfixed and perplexed. Each "vision" seems real to him, yet his son remains remote and out of reach. Alcandre, the magician, presides, Prospero-like over the proceedings (he even wields a long, wooden staff). He is assisted by his mute slave, Amanuensis, himself a mystery.

The most intriguing and entertaining character, aside from Alcandre, is the maid, a meddlesome busy little bee whose tart and sarcastic asides provide a bracing commentary to the action. But to get to the final payoff in Act 2 you need to sit through Act 1, which unfortunately is a bit of a slog. I will not give the ending away here, but it shouldn’t be too difficult to get the drift as the story unfolds. The denouement, needless to say, is comically ironic as well as a big relief.

Director Richard Corley has mounted a visually stunning production. The stage action is fast-paced and energetic, the costumes are sumptuous and the lighting is subtle and painterly. The performances, however, are somewhat mixed and problematical. Austin Durant's physically and vocally imposing Alcandre dominates the stage with his charismatic presence. Sarah Kauffman, as the maid, is deliciously pert and fiercely intelligent. Matthew Crider, as Matamor the lunatic, is wildly amusing and subsequently touching. He is the last character onstage as he approaches a ladder placed underneath the lights and plaintively asks how to get to the moon. The stage manager (Amanuensis) points to the ladder and the lights. The illusion is complete.

Less successful are the young actors playing the son, his beloved and his rival. They are earnest and attractive and they move well, but are not yet quite ready for prime time, as they lack the vocal and articulatory power to make the language come alive. Classical period plays require classically trained actors; there are no shortcuts.

Corneille, through Tony Kushner, questions what is real and what is illusion? Can we ever truly know the difference as we go through life? Perhaps not, but the play suggests that through art and love we may better understand who and what we are.

In Lies like Truth, a book of essays on the theater, Harold Clurman the eminent director and one of the founders of the Group Theatre during the 1930’s suggested that only through illusion (art) can we ultimately find the truth. In this play. Corneille and Kushner dramatize this essential paradox.

The Porches Inn

The Illusion
by Pierre Corneille, freely adapted by Tony Kushner Directed by Richard Corley
Cast: Ben Beckley, Zenzele Cooper, Matthew Grider, Austin Durant, Kevin Dwyer, Sarah Kauffman, Philip Sletteland, Brian Weaver
Set Design: Jack Magaw
Costume Design: Muriel Horton
Lighting Designer: Holly Bloomquist
Simantes Fight Director: Tony simontes
Berkshire Theatre Festival, Stockbridge, MA 413-298-5536 ext. 33 or413-298-5576
From May 25 to June 24, 2006; opening May 27th
Thursday through Saturday at 8pm; with special Monday through Wednesday performances, June 19-21 at 8pm and a Sunday matinee, May 28 at 2pm
Running Time: 2 hours plus intermission

Reviewed by Shirley Safran on May 27th
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