Tony Kushner’s free modern adaptation of a 1636 Pierre Corneille comedy is laugh-out-loud funny, a bright and buoyant blend of 17th century attitudes and contemporary farce. Kushner joyously jettisons the realistic tone of his “Homebody/Kabul” and “Angels in America,” and his flair for fantasy is highlighted by witty performances from the Lone Star Ensemble and Elizabeth Mestnik’s spirited direction.
The basic situation centers on Pridamant (Christopher T. Wood), an aging, ailing lawyer who asks sorceress Alcandre (Lauren Maher) to help him locate his long-lost son Calisto (Jay Sefton) so he can decide whether to make the boy his heir. Alcandre, a slinky, whip-wielding babe in black stiletto boots and breast-hugging Python body suit, conjures up three separate tales featuring Calisto in various romantic and sexual entanglements. Calisto’s name changes from scene to scene, as do the names of the other protagonists, but most of the actors give their characters such clarity and definition that we never lose track of the action.
Everything depends on how convincing Calisto is as a fanatically adoring lover, and Sefton takes an extreme, wonderfully effusive approach to the part. We can literally hear him panting as he makes the move on wealthy Melibea (Natalie Zea), then feel his rock-bottom despair when Melibea rejects him. But in true Commedia dell’Arte style, there’s a confidante — in this case, Elicia (Kathryn Gordon), Melibea’s beautiful maid, who helps him to hook up with his beloved, even though she wants him for herself.
In the second sequence, Calisto becomes Calindor, servant to Matamore (David St. James), a strutting, pompous and cowardly nobleman; the two compete for Isabelle (also played by Zea). Sefton’s portrayal gains even greater depth playing Calindor, the commoner who wants to marry Isabelle for her money, even though he feels more lust for Isabelle’s servant Lise (Gordon).
As Melibea/Isabelle, Zea is both regal and sensual, and Gordon’s maid (hilariously referred to as “the Medusa of the Linen Closet”) has strength, grace and topnotch comic timing. David St. James is the definitive blowhard with a scaredy-cat soul, so intimidated when physically challenged that he hands over his beloved without a fight. Also notable is Brian Stanton as another rival. The dramatic side of the story is potently played by Mark Gagliardi, in dual roles as the sorceress’ deaf-mute sidekick and Isabelle’s implacably vicious, vengeful father.
A few portrayals don’t integrate smoothly into the general pattern. Christopher Wood seems ill at ease with the rhythmic flow of the language, and his remarks while observing his son’s amorous adventures aren’t as funny or incisive as they could be. Also jarring is Lauren Maher, more nightmare porn queen than sorceress, a directorial misconception that only distracts from the wild and witty antics of the others. Her lack of credibility undermines the power of the show’s much-touted twist, and the tale loses impetus in its final few minutes.
Fortunately, the bulk of “The Illusion” is highly entertaining, aided by imaginative fog and lighting effects and fight choreographer Sondra Mayer’s staging of a duel, in which Calindor’s rival manages to wrest away both swords and still lose the battle. Quirky touches like these, and just the right number of serious, intense dramatic exchanges, give the show an underpinning of honesty and turn it into a study of relationships that has relevance in every period.