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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
The Tony Kushner season has added another sparkling jewel to the Signature's crown. It began with a terrific production of his ever timely and much extended two-part Angels in America . The co-production with the Public Theater of his ambitious new The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures (which you can still catch at the Public's downtown venue until June 12th) made it possible fo see two Kushner epics simultaneously.
Now, for what's probably the last production in the intimate Peter Norton Space where every seat is prime, the season concludes with a pre-Angels Kushner work, his free adaptation of The Illusion (L'illusion Comique) by Pierre Corneille, one of the seventeenth century's top three playwrights (the other two were Moliere and Racine). As Angels and The Intelligent Homossexual represented the playwright's passionate engagement with the moral, political and artistic issues of our time, The Illusion demonstrates his interest in all of history and his affinity for the great dramatic poets, and ability to honor Corneille's poetry and ideas in his own distinctive voice.
The language in this adaptation has a contemporary flavor and while Kushner has stuck with the seventeenth century setting and basic plot, it's imbued with his own ruminations about love, disillusionment and suffering and, given the format of the play, what it means to be a viewer to other people's passion and pain. What's more, though "brevity is the soul of wit" is not an adage Kushner tends to follow for his own plays, his take of Corneille's 5-act magical love story spins out over a fast-paced, easy to follow two hours and ten minutes plus one intermission. A bit of tightning of the first act by the director would make the pace even crisper.
Alcandre agrees to use her magical powers to help him, but with this proviso: He must first witness three "visions" of the son's life during those missing fifteen years. Pridament agrees and, like the audience, becomes witness to three "visions," In each of the scenes she has him witness the son's s name and circumstances are different. The same is true of the other characters in each "vision."
While Pridament recognizes his son, like the audience, he can't touch him or speak to him. However, there's plenty of by-play via Pridament and Alcandre's commentary and the magician's mute, piano playing Amanuensis (Henry Stram). The three episodes or visions chart the son's romantic adventures. In the first one he's an innocent in the throes of first love. His playing the Lute has the young Melibea switch from rejecting him to swooning (" He isn't even Calisto. He's Orpheus -- and I'm his Eurydice");. As the more mature Clindor and e married Theogenes he pays the ultimate price for his unfaithfulness. In short, we see love's initial exuberance turn into cynicism and violence, causing the comedy take on darker hues.
The son's changing circumstances and personality from visionary episode to episode mesmerize and perplex the father. Though each "vision" seems real, the son is still impenetrably unreachable and remote. The magician remains at Pridament's side throughout, a sort of God-like stage manager, her assistant, the Amanuensis, adding to the overall puzzlement about what's happening and going to happen.
The other characters include the two young women who play major roles in the evolving romantic story: the object of the son's affection and as well as the betrayed spouse (Amanda Quaid) and her scheming maid/companion (Merritt Wever). We also have a rival suitor who turns vengeful husband (Sean Dugan) and In the middle vignette, Matamore (Peter Bartlett) adds a heaping serving of commedia dell'arte braggadocio.
Neither playwright or audience could wish for a better ensemble of actors to make this baroque adult fairy tale work. David Margulies is a character actor able to bring nuance and conviction to each of his many roles. His lawyer who seeks reconciliation but also wants to make sense of his son's life is no exception. The only thing repetitious about his acting, is a voice that's a master class in projecting so not a word is missed. Lois Smith too demonstrates her acting versatility as the fascinating wizard. Henry Shram is mesmerizing as the tortured Amanuensis and also does a critical turn as Geronte, a villainous father.
Meritt Wever is a standout as the meddlesome maid whose asides serve as incisive and witty commentary. When, in the final episode she declares " I will leave the bloodsport of love to my betters" you may be sure that she's not quite the loser she claims to be. The part of Matamore is made to order for Peter Bartlett's brand of physical and vocal comedy. He hilariously makes his manservant write down all his epigrams even though he admits they don't make sense. He also manages to make his fool quite touching.
While this adaptation is more than twenty years old and has had quite a few productions, director Michael Mayer and his design team have seen to it that this is one of the liveliest and loveliest you'll ever see. Christine Jones (she also designed the Mayer directed Spring Awakening) has transformed the Signature stage into a place filled with everything needed to create the aura of a mysterious magician's lair, with room for Alcandre and Pridamant to move to different areas around the perimeters of the stage for each scene. The grand player piano that's sunk halfway into the stage and on which the Amamuensis accompanies much of the action with Nico Muhly's atmospheric music adds to the baroque atmosphere, as does Kevin Adams' lighting. Just imagine a breathtaking sword fight accompanied by that music ending in a burst of blood red light, and the circle of lanterns on the ceiling dropping down to become a prison. Add Susan Hilferty's sumptuous period costumes, and you have an idea of the visual treat that's in store for you.
As for the mystery of all these constantly metamorphosing characters, it does all culminate in a wonderfully ironic surprise ending. Rather than giving it away here, I urge you to see if you can snare one of those $20 tickets before the price rises during the already announced extension of this unique, colorful and entertaining new-old play.