If the quality of the production design (set, lighting, sound) were enough to guarantee a play’s success, the Namaste Theater Co.’s presentation of Pierre Corneille’s 17th century farce could run for years. But the play is the thing, and despite its magnificent trappings, “The Illusion” — as adapted by Tony Kushner (“Angels in America”), staged by Michael Uppendahl and performed by an inconsistent ensemble — offers much less than meets the eye.
Kris Sandheinrich has converted the ample Actors’ Gang stage area into an awe-inspiring. multilevel, stalactite-strewn cavern, further enhanced by the creative, impressionistic lighting of David F. Hahn and the mood-rich sound design of Staton Miles.
Within this environment, the wealthy French merchant Pridamant of Avignon (Dean Robinson) seeks the aid of the sorcerer Alcandre (Gary Kelley) to conjure up the image of the merchant’s long-lost son (Jason Hebel), whom he banished years earlier. The mischievous wizard proceeds to toy with the merchant, bringing forth three visions of the boy, following him through many pseudocomical/tragic adventures as he evolves from love-sick, idealistic youth to hardened, self-serving cad.
Kushner’s loose adaptation fails to infuse this dated, predictable work with much-needed dramatic tension and continuity–problems exacerbated by the lackadaisical staging. Though director Uppendahl moves his characters about imaginatively, he never achieves the focus and sense of epic storytelling needed to make this production worthy of the environment its designers have created.
Hebel’s youth (his name changes with each scene) appears to undergo his character development between visions. Whether his name is Calisto, Clindor or Theogenes, Hebel doesn’t invest his character with enough onstage personality growth or inner life to warrant any concern or interest in what befalls him. Faring much better is Holly Gleason as Melibea/Isabelle/Hippolyta, the beautiful and aristocratic object of the young man’s ardent pursuit and conquest. Gleason exhibits well-honed comic timing and dramatic flair as the flighty young damsel transformed by love into a memorably tragic heroine.
Robinson and Kelley give it their scenery-chewing best as the merchant and sorcerer, respectively, but their wordy shenanigans are so outside the center of the action, they are like an extension of the audience. Anne Goldhorn is noteworthy as the manipulative maid Elicia/Lyse/Clarina, who manages to exude a tangible fury when she is used and cast off by the youth. Also praiseworthy is Hugh Adair’s comically grotesque outing as Matamore, who is aptly described as a “monster of ego run amok.”
More self-conscious than successful are Alex Fox as the youth’s constant rival and Brice Beckham as the sorcerer’s hard-working assistant.