Regional Reviews: San Diego
17th century French lawyer Pridamant of Avignon (John Herzog) travels to the cave of a witch, Alcandre (Kandis Chappell). Pridamant wants Alcandre to reveal what happened to his son whom he had cruelly banished. For reasons that may not be immediately clear, Alcandre shows Pridamant three "phantasms" that might reveal what happened to his child. The central protagonist in these visions (Michael Polak) is referred to by different names in each vignette. Yet the tales seem to be connected and appear to shape a connected narrative about two potentially doomed lovers.
In this work of imaginative fiction, several genres are teased, ranging from comedy, romance, mystery and swashbuckling adventure to tragedy. When the intermission arrives, Kushner's plot still isn't clear. That's part of the fun of joining Pridamant on his unusual journey.
North Coast Rep Artistic Director David Ellenstein is in charge of all the drastic tonal shifts. He maintains an imaginative style and doesn't offer too many clues to Kushner's puzzle. Ellenstein's entire design team contributes to Alcandre's magical and possibly dangerous cave. Marty Burnett's set and Elisa Benzoni's costumes for Alcandre and her assistant Amanuensis (John Greenleaf) feel like they came out of a fairy tale. The sorceress, with her supernatural powers, looks like an imposing figure. Miking from sound designer Melanie Chen relies a little too much on echoing dialogue early on, but the music she has chosen fits Kushner's strange world very well. Herzog, Chappell and Greenleaf all act in ways that seem bizarre and idiosyncratic. What's interesting is they all feel real and human when more information is revealed about each of them.
Matt Novotny's lighting aids Ellenstein in bringing the visions to life. There is a bit more color in the stories, when compared to Alcandre's peculiar home. Her first phantasm is the least interesting, which is ironic since the Pridamant says it's his favorite. What happens is mostly build up for situations that happen in the other visions. Polak and Sharon Rietkerk give exaggerated portrayals of two people who are falling for each other. Although their performances as the romantic Calisto and the noblewoman Melibea are intentionally amplified, this does create a distancing effect from their relationship.
Events become significantly more interesting in the second part when Clindor (Polak) and his love interest Isabelle (Rietkerk) face a variety of different conflicts. Both Polak and Rietkerk become enjoyable to watch and their struggles benefit from several side characters. Smart and high spirited, Christina L. Flynn plays Isabelle's maid Lyse as a possibly untrustworthy foil. Flynn brings a mischievous personality to Lyse's scheming. Isabelle's rival suitor Matamore has a good number of hysterical moments, owing to actor Andrew Ableson. His dopey and self-indulgent attitude allows the aristocrat to be charismatically silly.
A lot of intrigue is developed early on. However, be aware that The Illusion is a slow burn. Kushner and Ellenstein don't answer many questions for a long period of time. Knowing this before going to Solana Beach can make the interpretation easier to enjoy. Although some might get a little fidgety, Pridamant's hopes to find closure with his son is the emotional hook. Far from the World's Best Dad, he still is empathetic and there is suspense as to whether he can find closure by seeing the phantasms.
Bracingly outlandish and ambitiously unorthodox, Kushner provides an exciting ride that simultaneously honors and plays around with theatrical conventions. Keep an open mind and you'll find his parable to be a rich one.
North Coast Repertory Theatre presents The Illusion through March 19, 2017. Performs Sundays through Saturdays at 987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Suite D, Solana Beach, CA. Tickets start at $44.00 and can be purchased online at www.northcoastrep.org or by phone at 1-858-481-1055.