The Illusion is the final play in the Signature Theatre Company’s season of works by Tony Kushner, although it’s an adaptation of Pierre Corneille’s L’Illusion comique. Kushner has taken liberties with Corneille’s original, putting in new scenes and contributing his own vibrant language, darkening the tone of the neoclassical original, but there’s still much by Corneille that shines through strongly. The Illusion concerns Pridamant (David Margulies), a lawyer who drove his son Clindor away years before and now regrets his actions. To locate the boy, he calls at the cavernous lair of a sorceress, Alcandre (Lois Smith, taking on a role that was a male in the original). The brusque and initially unsympathetic mistress of dark arts shows Pridamant three visions of his son’s life. The scenes show his love affairs with different women, their jealous suitors, and a saucy maid, played adeptly by Merrit Wever in all three. In all three the characters have different names.
In the first, for instance, Clindor appears as a ragged peasant calling himself Calisto, declaring his love for the beautiful Melibea, who scorns him, but not wholeheartedly. Her maid cleverly elicits her mistress’s true feelings and arranges for the would-be lovers to meet. Calisto’s rival is a suitor named Pleribo.
Though The Illusion is a comedy about love, it comes with a heavy dose of cynicism, yet it all seems of a piece under Michael Mayer’s skillful direction. It’s not entirely love that leads Pridamant to seek Clindor: “I want to make him sick with guilt,” he says. Wittrock’s passionate hero describes his love for her mistress to the maid: “Inside I bleed.” His beloved reacts with shock to discover that he has no money after she has been disinherited for choosing him: “Both poor!” “Love is the illusion,” pronounces Alcandre, suggesting that the feelings of happiness it engenders are not real.
As the visions continue, a confused Pridamant complains, “Why has everyone changed their name? .... A man has a right to expect coherence.” It’s a bit of a meta-theatrical moment, with Kushner commenting on the French neoclassical rules of unity of time and place that Corneille managed to undermine in this clever work. By showing “visions” in a framing device that conformed to the rules—the French academy in the 17th century was brutal about breaking them—Corneille got around them. More important, Kushner’s intellectual playfulness opens the play up to modern audiences who don’t care about its historical significance; Kushner hints at it in Alcandre’s description of the visions as “a love and death spectacle worthy of Racine,” an icon of playwriting for the French academy.
The actors embrace the rich characters with verve. Wittrock moves gradually from peasant to military man (the final twist explains the nature of the visions), while remaining likable and noble whether he’s in rags or a uniform (by Susan Hilferty). Sean Dugan plays all three suitors with differing levels of arrogance and wrath. Wever’s maids move from helpful to mercenary, and she handles soliloquies of rhyming couplets with aplomb. Outside the visions, David Margulies’ Pridamant adds dryly comic touches as well.
Most delightful is Peter Bartlett as Matamore, a braggart soldier. The stereotype goes back at least to Plautus, but this Matamore is a fop, embodied by Bartlett with his trademark epicene flourish and comic timing. “I am so great at times I want to flee myself!” he declares. While describing a battle in which “the blood ran ankle-deep,” he wobbles and almost faints.
The darkness and mystery of the cave and the visions are enhanced by Kevin Adams’ inventively sparse lighting, while Bray Poor’s eerie sound design contributes dripping water and birds screeching.
Though at times Kushner wears his knowledge on his sleeve (there’s a line referencing the Ghost of Hamlet’s father, and occasionally the author’s love of language verges on turgid), most often he enhances the original, adding, for instance, a duel. (The French neoclassicists banned all violence from the stage.) He also provides an ending that gives Bartlett the opportunity to play emotions rarely associated with him, and the actor rises to the occasion. In a wistful, melancholy moment, Matamore compares himself to Hannibal and prepares to leave this world for a better one (indicated by a masterly projection). It’s a fitting, fanciful coda to a play that should be better known.