Regional Reviews: San Francisco
The Illusion was adapted by Tony Kushner from a play by 17th Century French playwright Pierre Cornielle. This was Cornielle's only fantasy comedy. Mr. Kushner has done a splendid adaptation of what could have been a very boring play. He presents this play divided into two separate worlds; one is theatrical, the other is real and it is up to the audience to determine which one is the illusion.
The story is a simple one about a rather flinty, regretful father who is trying to find the son he banished 15 years earlier. He enlists the help of a wizard - a chemist of emotions - and his sprite. The father goes to the cave of the sorcerer Alcandre where the wizard lives with his sprite and other odd characters.
The wizard shows the Pridamant a series of three visions of his son's life during that 15 year period. The wizard says "you can look at his life but you can't change it". We see the young son wooing the rich and beautiful Isabelle. We see the crafty servant girl to Isabelle trying to lure the son to her side. Also involved is Isabelle battling her own father's plans to marry her off to a rich prince. Thrown into this mix is the pompous and cowardly poet, Mattamore.
There are sword fights and sorcery, trysts and teases, and the characters change from scene to scene. In fact, in one scene the father yells to the wizard, "Why are you showing me this, it has nothing to do with my son" I have to admit, I was somewhat confused after the first act but it all comes together in the second act. Also, there is a twist to the ending that I won't divulge. The play is done on a very limited budget but it does have all the magic you want in the two hour production.
There is a Shakespearean feel to the play, yet it still retains a cartoon spirit about it. Lighting on this play is one of the keys assets of the production. Sometimes you are in pitch blackness and lights from the floor accentuate the character's face. The odd characters of the cavern roam about the small auditorium using strange and weird facial expressions. They wriggle and grimace hauntingly and they come in and out of the cave playing space. Slender white columns that rose from the floor like stalagmites. They were filled with colored lights and occasionally an actor. Very ingenious staging of this fractured fairy tale.
Director Ben Yalom has assembled a cast of mostly young actors and he lets them play with luscious abandon. I do have to say some were a little inexperienced but it was obvious that they were well directed and there was not a miscue among them. This is a difficult play even for experienced actors and I give all of the cast my thumbs up.
David Mendelsohn is superb in the role of the spirit who can be as charming as Puck or as bitter as Caliban. He changes roles in the second act to become the stern and flinty father of Isabelle. He has a wonderful voice and I hope to see him in future productions.
Kaliopi Eleni, a very talented actress, who excels in Shakespeare is marvelous as the young servant girl. She has the wittiest lines in the production. Corrie Henninger shines as Isabelle and is lovely to look at. Alexander Lewis seems a tad inexperienced for the role of the young son. However, with more experience he should become an accomplished actor. He does tend to shout too much and some of his emotions are exaggerated.
Neil Flint Wordon plays the sorcerer and gives his performance a cynical world-weary style. His voice is just a little too monotone and could stand some more emotion. Louis Parnell, an experienced actor with a striking voice, is touching as the depressed father. Stephen Jacob is likable as the foolish and chicken-hearted poet warrior. James Cutts is also a bit inexperienced in the roles of the Prince and Plebibo. However, he has good presence on the stage. Todd Narker's live percussion score is very repetitive but does seem to go along with the production. All in all, it is very interesting evening and I hope to see more productions coming from this new company.
The production runs until January 28th at:
The Sali Lieberman Studio Theatre
Cheers - and be sure to check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area