Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
Is it all a dream? A Noise Within’s “The Illusion” makes the mystical amusing
Its beginnings have a familiar flavor. A man who long ago tossed his son out as a wastrel has a change of heart, and reaches out for help in finding the boy again. Pierre Corneille’s 17th Century mystical tragi-comedy “The Illusion” takes this essential premise and creates from it humor and intrigue and mysticism enough to keep an audience riveted. Translated by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner, it ends up with a balance of contemporary wit and classic suspension of disbelief which prove compelling watching.
That is, if one is watching the production of this delight at A Noise Within. The odd tale comes alive because of terrific performances, and because of the whimsical direction of Casey Stangl. The result is a triumph of almost attractive weirdness, consistent humor and whipcrack timing.
Pridamant seeks advice from the sorceress Alcandre in order to find his son. She, assisted by an occasionally speechless or deaf slave named Amanuensis, show Pridamant scenes from his son’s life since his disappearance. Throughout, though he often changes his name, a beautiful woman, a scheming servant girl and a noble opponent reappear in each setting, spurring as many questions as answers – questions which cannot be explained completely until the visions are complete.
Kushner has given this weird tale a tone which diffuses the antiquity of the play itself. The rest is the artistry of the production. Nick Ullett makes Pridamant’s stuffy and judgmental evaluations of his son’s life, and suspicion of the very sorcery he has sought out, funny and recognizable. Deborah Strang gives the sorceress a wry, practical sense which makes her very mysticism more of a science than a dark art. Jeff Doba’s sometimes stoic, sometimes very funny manservant brings all the mystery down to earth.
Graham Hamilton cuts a handsome and romantic figure as Pridamant’s absent son. Devon Sorvari makes a lovely object of his affections. Freddy Douglas gives his rival a snobby authority, while Abby Craden’s wily servant girl often seems to take charge, as she sounds the voice of reason in the many hyper-romantic situations Pridamant is allowed to see. Alan Blumenfeld has a lovely time as the bombastic, ineffective windbag, Matamore.
All of these scenes take place in Keith Mitchell’s mystical cave of a set, where Jeremy Pivnick’s clever lighting moves us from a dank hideaway to the sites of the son’s adventures with the kind of ease only available in the theater. Julie Keen’s evocative costumes (Alcandre’s is especially good – fascinatingly off kilter) set the tone both of mystery and normalcy. The sum total is an evening of lighthearted fun, with a highly entertaining surprise at story’s end.
“The Illusion” is a unique gift in a theater which concentrates on classic material, in that it feels new, both because of the language of the translation and because it is simply not well known. Corneille is far from an undiscovered playwright, but his works have not had the continuous presence in the canon that Moliere, Voltaire or – obviously – Shakespeare and his ilk have enjoyed. One is therefore able to have the delight of surprise, rather than simply the evaluation of a new rendition of something well known. And this is, indeed, a gentle delight.
What: “The Illusion” When: Through May 19 in repertory with two other plays, 8 p.m. selected Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. selected Sundays, with 2 p.m. matinees on some Saturdays and Sundays Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: $42 – $46 Info: (626) 356-3100, ext. 1 or http://www.ANoiseWithin.org