The Illusion has an intriguing premise, reminiscent of Calderon's Life Is a Dream, from the same period: an old man (Pridamant, played by Emily Stokes) visits a magician (Alcandre, played by Katharine Houston) for word on how his son, who left the house many years before, has got on in life. The magician shows the old man scenes from the young man's life, in which the young man woos, wins, and mistreats a young woman. When the magician shows the old man a final scene in which a prince murders the son for having an affair with the prince's wife, the old man relents his harshness at cutting off the son. Alcandre then tells Pridamant that the son is not dead at all but working in Paris as an actor, a discovery that fills Pridamant with new misgivings.
The Hyperbolic rendition of this story (done in front of black drapes with an armchair the only set piece) showed a perverse pride in working against the text and against type. In particular, Ms. Stokes played Pridamant, a crusty old man beginning grudgingly to find his conscience, as a petulant young woman with no reason to come to Alcandre's cave. Ms. Houston suggested a vampish melodrama in her role, with overtones of camp.
The subplot was enacted more realistically but without resorting to subtlety, irony, or classical technique. The young couple (Chris Libenson and Heather Rogers), while appropriately dazzled by love very early on, too soon showed their true colors as the selfish (but dim-witted) brats they were. Arwen Lowbridge portrayed the young girl's tomboyish servant as suitably smug and level-headed, though the part did not require so much gesticulation.
Alexandra Gray had a good turn as Alcandre's servant, at first apparently deaf and mute, and then as the young girl's father, who loves her "with a love as white as bone" - a love that gladly condemns her young lover to death. (He escapes with the connivance of the maid, and the three live less than happily ever after.) The father's example of hard-heartedness melts Pridamant's own resolve.
James Ford as a lunatic, the young man's confidant, excelled in a thankless role that made no sense but offered some much-needed comic relief. And Howard Emanuel, as the alternately bullying and cowardly rival for the young man and as the prince whose wife dallies on the wrong side of the tracks, turned on an emotional dime in an impressive performance of talent and technique.
Cara Burdick's direction showed some novelties, such as two witty interactions between the deaf-mute and the story of the lovers. Burdick generally made economical use of the wide but shallow stage.
The plethora of lighting instruments (Marc Schmittroth) could have been put to better use to emphasize the magic of the subplot, or sometimes even to illuminate the actors. Anne Foldeak's fight choreography was a high point.
Kushner, while he coins some catchy phrases, proves his lack of dramaturgical savvy when he builds an expectation that the young man will marry the maid (because she has extorted all the girl's money). He throws this idea away in the second act and replaces it with the less likely premise that the young man, having killed a man in a duel over the girl, becomes a murderer and adulterer. And the dénouement lasted too long, a combined fault of writing, directing, and hyperbolic acting.
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Copyright 1998 John Chatterton