The Illusion
The Illusion Credit: Michael Brosilow

The Illusion Court Theatre

It makes sense that Tony Kushner penned a loose English-language adaptation of Pierre Corneille’s L’Illusion Comique in the 1980s, not long before he started working on Angels in America. Corneille’s 1636 play is a calculated hodgepodge—a funny, sad, tricky fairy tale/melodrama, chock-full of high aspirations, low comedy, and unapologetic magic. Ditto Angels in America. Kushner’s own epic “fantasia” is ultimately a lot grimmer and more elegiac than L’Illusion Comique—set mainly in New York (and heaven) during the early years of the AIDS epidemic, it pretty much has to be. Still, both pieces express their authors’ confidence that the stage can support anything a writer is capable of imagining. In fact, they’re proof that it can.

But if Kushner’s The Illusion is basically just a warm-up exercise for his magnum opus, it’s a mighty successful one. Especially as staged by Charles Newell for Court Theatre, Corneille’s Kushnerized tale of paternal crime and punishment comes across as a dark lark.

The errant father is Pridamant, a prim lawyer whose disapproval sent his son Clindor packing long ago. The years have made Pridamant regret their alienation—though not necessarily the behavior that triggered it. He’d like to reconcile but has no idea what’s become of the boy. He therefore consults the wizard Alcandre, who lives in a cave and runs a kind of supernatural detective agency. With the assistance of his slave, Amanuensis—an odd, interesting cross between Caliban the mooncalf and Ariel the sprite from The Tempest—Alcandre summons 3-D, moving images of Clindor, all grown up, for Pridamant to view.

Naturally, Pridamant is overjoyed to see his son alive. But the images raise some disturbing issues for the old man. For one thing, Clindor still has the “feral stare” that so disturbed his bourgeois father when he was still at home. For another, that feral quality has clearly come to dominate his personality. Always orbiting around love in some form or other, Clindor’s actions are impetuous at best, reprehensible at worst, often dangerous, and always puzzling. Now he’s a canny servant, wooing both an aristocratic beauty and her maid. Now he’s a romantic fool, daring to fight his upper-class rival for a woman. Now he’s a common soldier, doing his pathetic captain out of his heart’s desire. Now he’s a murderer, awaiting execution.

On top of all this, there’s something peculiar about the reception Alcandre gets down in his cave. Clindor’s name seems to change from moment to moment, while the constellation of people with whom he interacts—the beauty, the maid, the rival, the captain—remain the same. Even so, Pridamant is drawn to his son’s exploits as he would be to those of a character in a story. Empathy is Pridamant’s punishment for having been an unloving pere.

And his catharsis is Alcandre’s reward for putting on the show. No two ways about it, we’re in the land of meta-theater here. Corneille connects the dots explicitly in his play, offering up a paean to theatrical magic. Kushner allows the message to come through in a few gestures, at once mischievous, elegant, and resonant.

As Pridamant, the Quixote-lean John Reeger does a tremendous amount of watching over the course of two and a half hours. The same is true of Chris Sullivan as Alcandre and Kevin Gudahl as Amanuensis. If I’ve seen more active, more character-specific or evocative watching in my life, I don’t know when. It’s an enormous pleasure to watch all three watch. But they do considerably more. Sullivan—who distinguished himself comedically in Court’s The Mystery of Irma Vep and tragically in the Hypocrites’ The Hairy Ape—makes Alcandre a Prospero-like amalgam, by turns fuzzy and cruel. Gudahl, who generally plays leads, makes an imprisoned demon of Amanuensis: you sympathize with his servitude, but all the same you don’t want him escaping.

The rest of the cast is similarly splendid—especially Timothy Edward Kane, who takes the captain from cartoonish braggadocio (“I am so great at times I want to flee myself”) to an almost monastic dignity. Elizabeth Ledo is seductive as the maid whose mind is always working; Michael Mahler, a cad with Candide’s looks as Clindor; and Hillary Clemens, fortune’s endearing fool as the beauty. Collette Pollard’s scenic design—featuring what appears to be a giant clock works under a great black slab of stone—attains the status of an ensemble member, and Jacqueline Firkins’s costumes are plain old delightful.