There is only one word for the new PlayMakers Repertory Company production of contemporary American playwright Tony Kushner’s loose adaptation of 17th century French dramatist Pierre Corneille’s comedy The Illusion, and that is fabulous. Press Night, last Saturday, was a truly magical evening in which inspired staging by new PRC producing artistic director Joseph Haj and magnificent set, lighting, costume, and sound design combined with luminous performances by a crackerjack cast to bespell critics and PlayMakers patrons alike. The Illusion is theater at its finest.
Director Joseph Haj brilliantly collaborated with scenic designer McKay Coble to transform the thrust stage of the Paul Green Theater into an ominous vision of the dark, dank cave where the magician Alcandre (Ray Dooley) conjures up the titular illusions — in a magical circle — with the help of his long-suffering servant The Amanuensis (fight choreographer Nikolas Priest), who is periodically rendered mute and deaf at the whim of the tyrannical Alcandre.
Lighting designer Justin Town’s brooding lighting scheme, costume designer Marion Williams’ vivacious and sometimes splendidly surrealistic versions of 17th century French fashions, sound designer Michel Marrano’s suspenseful soundscape, and composer Tony Reimer’s eerie compositions all help create just the right conditions for theatrical magic to occur — and, oh boy, does it. The Illusion is chock-full of dizzying plot twists and wonderful surprises, for which the ticket-buyer should have no advance warning.
With a frizzy wig and goggles reminiscent of the crackpot inventor in the Back to the Future trilogy, PlayMakers mainstay Ray Dooley’s Alcandre takes his reluctant customer Pridamont (David Adamson), a fussy lawyer and dogmatic dad from Avignon, on one wild ride. Pridamont pays a premium price for Alcandre to conjure up news of the rebellious son (Christopher Taylor) whom he drove from his household some 15 years previously.
David Adamson’s prideful Pridamont is conscience-stricken — but still acutely cost-conscious — as he negotiates with Alcandre to gin up illusions of his son, who answers to a new and different name — Calisto, Clindor, and Theogenes — in each of the three illusions that comprise the plays-within-the-play of The Illusion.
Ray Dooley’s passionate performance as Alcandre, Adamson’s crusty characterization of Pridamont, and Christopher Taylor and Janie Brookshire’s warm and winning portrayals as the youthful star-crossed lovers Calisto/Clindor/Theogenes and Melibea/Isabelle/Hippolyta make The Illusion a comic feast. Nikolas Priest likewise makes an indelible impression as Alcandre’s cruelly chained, shambling, bald-headed, beast-like Amanuensis. Priest is even better, in one all-too-brief cameo, as the disobedient Isabelle’s indignant father Geronte, who frowns ferociously on his daughter’s proposed union with the impecunious serving man Clindor.
Wesley Schultz gives a peppery performance as Pleribo/Adraste/Prince Florilame, the high-born and well-off romantic rivals to the penniless servant Calisto/Clindor/Theogenes, and Allison Reeves heightens the show’s hilarity with her sassy portrayal of the three headstrong ladies’ maids and confidants Elicia/Lyse/Clarina. But it is Jeffrey Blair Cornell who steals the show. From the moment he foppishly saunters on stage, wearing narcissistic spit curls, Cornell completely captivates the audience with his antic impersonation of the lunatic Matamore, Clindor’s mincing master during the eventful interlude in which he attempts to woo and wed fair Isabelle, despite Geronte’s implacable opposition to the match.
The Illusion, which ends PlayMakers Repertory Company’s 2006-07 season on a very high note indeed, is a rare and altogether wonderful demonstration of what happens when great theatrical minds pool their onstage and backstage talents to make magic—pure magic. Don’t you dare miss it.
PlayMakers Repertory Company presents The Illusion Tuesday-Saturday, April 17-21 and 24-28 and May 1-5, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, April 22 and 29 and May 6, at 2 p.m. in the Paul Green Theater in the Center for Dramatic Art at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. $10-$32. 919/962-PLAY (7529). Note 1: There will be FREE post-show discussions on April 18th and 22nd. Note 2: There will be a $7.50-per-student 10:30 a.m. April 20th Educational Matinee performance for middle and high school students, with free admission for teachers and chaperones, followed by a post-show discussion featuring members of the cast and artistic staff. (For reservations, telephone PRC director of education and outreach David Lorenc at 919/962-2491.) Note 3: Arts Access, Inc. of Raleigh (http://www.artsaccessinc.org/) will audio describe the May 1st all-access performance, which will also feature Braille and large-print programs and sign-language interpretation, in addition to the assisted listening system and wheelchair seating that PRC offers at every performance. PlayMakers Repertory Company: http://www.playmakersrep.org/genPage/index.pl?pgid=175 [inactive 8/07].