The way in which Pridamant (Michael Laskin ’12) cries out, “A light, please, I’m blind” in Tony Kushner’s “The Illusion” is disquieting and desperate. The production, directed by Oren Stevens ’11, excels in its emotive use of light and color, but, like Pridamant, sometimes feels as though it is groping in the dark. While there are moments when the show achieves the brilliance embedded in Kushner’s writing, it ultimately runs out of steam on that precarious divide between truly moving theater and idle entertainment.
The action of the play is precipitated when Pridamant ventures into the cave of the sorcerer Alcandre (Maya Seidler ’11) hoping that he can magically locate Pridamant’s son, who ran away long ago to escape his father’s abuse. Instead, Alcandre conjures up a series of apparitions to play out Pridamant’s son’s post-runaway life. For the majority of the play, the pair sit onstage watching as the son (Charlie Polinger ’13) struggles through the trials and tribulations of his love for a woman known alternatively as Melibea, Isabelle, and Hippolyta (Bonnie Antosh ’13). As the title of the show suggests, however, not everything is as it seems. The apparitions’ names change from scene to scene, and Pridamant begins to doubt if what he is observing is the truth of his son’s life or merely one of Alcandre’s games.
The mystery and intrigue that ensues is rendered perfectly by Lauren Bremen’s ’10 lighting design. As Alcandre and Pridamant sit watching the apparitions act out the son’s life, they are cast in baroque mystery by the orange light of a candelabrum. The scenes they watch unfold are illuminated by the melancholic blue of a prison cell and the reds and greens of Alcandre’s magic. Rachel Sturm’s ’10 set, in which the son’s story is played out, is minimalist, featuring only a few stone blocks. But the clutter of magical objects and mysterious jars that fill Alcandre’s cave evokes the cluttered, abstruse nature of memory itself.
The actors’ renditions of that memory, while overall strong, are variable. The heightened artificiality of performing a show within a show poses a great challenge to many cast members. Kushner’s faux-classical dialogue proves an impediment to organic character development, rather than an instrument for playful theatrical experimentation.
When the actors hit their marks, Kushner’s imagery is riveting. Alcandre’s haunting description of love as a “magnificent rose smelling faintly of blood” sends chills down your spine. Alex Klein ’12, as Isabelle’s father, Geronte, is particularly visceral as he delivers each line with palpable contempt for his daughter. Laskin shines in his convincing portrayal of a man in search of something he cannot define.
At their worst, the actors’ soliloquies alienate the audience with excessive histrionics. Polinger, Antosh, and Charlotte McCurdy ’13, who plays Antosh’s maid, occasionally get lost in the tricky nuances of the play’s meta-theatrical structure.
A model of what experimental theater should be, “The Illusion” is daring in its form and language but still rooted in traditional theatrical conventions. The event of the play, a dying father trying to find the heir to his throne, is straightforward. It is only as the show progresses that its post-modernist elements emerge from Bremen’s eerie shadows. The show is refreshingly ambitious, and when it hits you, it hits hard. If you let it, “The Illusion” might just cast you under its spell, if only for brief moments at a time.