“The Illusion” offers a glimpse of Tony Kushner pre-“Angels in America,” with an assist, to be sure, from the 17th-century French lawyer-turned-playwright Pierre Corneille. Unlike Kushner’s other early work, “A Bright Room Called Day”– an arch, self-conscious play that drew phony parallels between Weimar Germany and ’80s America –“The Illusion” has the fresh, bumptious quality of an intellect brimming with theatrical ideas.
They don’t all work. The Classic Stage Company production, directed by David Esbjornson — the company’s artistic director and the first to stage “Angels in America”– suffers from some casting lapses as well. Nevertheless, “The Illusion” is that rarity, a lively rethinking of a minor classic whose motifs don’t seem at all dated and whose dramatic sleight of hand is timeless.
The morose Avignon lawyer Pridamant (John C. Vennema) visits the cave-bound sorcerer Alcandre (Rocco Sisto) to find out how his estranged son Calisto (Rob Campbell) has fared in the world.
With the reluctant aid of a Caliban-like servant (Dan Moran), Alcandre conjures the impoverished, duplicitous, yet irresistibly charming Calisto as he courts high-born Melibea (Cynthia Nixon) while bedding her pragmatic maid, Elicia (Lynn Hawley), and fending off an aristocratic rival (Todd Weeks) for Melibea’s hand. Though Calisto is supposed to be doing the bidding of the “lunatic squire” Matamore (Steve Mellor), Calisto persuades even him to renounce his goal, at the same time assuring Elicia that his heart’s with her and he wants Melibea only for her money.
The story progresses over several scenes from the first blush of passion to bitter disillusion, but the names of the characters keep changing, to the father’s chagrin (though the explanation for this is so obvious we practically slap ourselves for not guessing when it’s disclosed in the final scene). Along the way, the author(s) make some unsettling points about love –“that sarcophagus, that catastrophe”– self-deception and the capacity (or lack of it) of fathers, sons and lovers to change.
Corneille was freely mixing up several theatrical conventions and thumbing his nose, the program says, at the Aristotelian “unities” of place, time and action. Similarly, Kushner mixes up dialogue, free verse and rhyming couplets, as well as formal language, vernacular speech and endless epigrams, though where Corneille ends and Kushner begins I can’t say: “He can make you forget where he stops and you begin,” one character says.
Whatever the case, the result of this collaboration across 360 years is quite enjoyable. Set designer Karen TenEyck has hung the intimate CSC theater with outsize stalactites for Alcandre’s grotto; The scenes from Calisto’s life are played as if against a rear wall of the cave, in front of a cyclorama brightly lit by Brian MacDevitt.
Nixon, all blond ringlets and regal neck, is passionate and vulnerable as Melibea, one minute denouncing Calisto as “that fountain of dreadful metaphors” and the next, in a love scene Esbjornson stages with haunting delicacy, finding herself hopelessly in his thrall.
Equally delightful is Hawley as Elicia, the servant and confidante nevertheless willing to continue her liaison with her mistress’s husband.
Campbell delivers the language well, but he fails to capture the charm and charisma that so mesmerize the two women; and when his Calisto declares, “There is something in the danger and the treason I find attractive,” it almost seems a schoolboy’s sentiment, more feigned than real — an illusion.
Sisto hasn’t found the right tone for Alcandre; he’s neither menacing nor spooky, though Moran brings a kind of Uncle Fester innocence to a strange role.
Weeks has a few fine moments as Calisto’s various rivals and ultimately his undoing.
But the finest of the men’s performances comes from Mellor as poor Matamore. A veteran of Sam Shepard’s plays, Mellor’s an expert at tempering light roles with dark nuance and playing sinister parts with a light touch; with his flamboyant gestures and over-the-top emoting, the performance is more than a little reminiscent of the title character in “La Bete.” Yet he’s unexpectedly touching as a heartsick romantic who tenderly tries to relocate to the moon when life on earth becomes too incomprehensibly cruel.
Beholden to no one and unclassifiable, this is the kind of show that will drive nit-pickers nuts. Yet it’s exactly the kind of reinvention that keeps classic theater alive. And it’s a lot of fun, to boot.