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With a capital “C”: The Illusion at Stageworks/Hudson

A Grand Deception
By James Yeara

The Illusion

By Tony Kushner, directed by Laura Margolis

StageWorks/Hudson, Max and Lillian Katzman Theater, through Nov. 20

The set is a large, dark-gray theatrical cavern with sparkles inlaid in the walls. Instead of stalagmites, there’s a hole in the cavern floor downstage center for that most theatrical of clichés, the trapdoor. The wizard and his sometimes deaf-mute servant wear long cloaks, cowls and commedia dell’arte masks and speak in large, hollow-vowelled words that seem to echo in the very chests of the characters. Scrims in the cavern walls up center and down left create portals for characters to be seen, then disappear when the backlight vanishes to form impenetrable rocks. Fog is pushed on from stage right to curl in the air and provoke coughs from the first row. Storybook costumes in bright colors, lace collars in impossibly bright white, and damsels with their décolletage in distress swirl about the stage. Thrilling foil fights take place, actors tumble in perfect shoulder rolls or bend backward at impossible angles suspended by the villain’s clenched fist over the hole, and a scheming serving wench makes her bosom heave while plotting: This is the stuff on which StageWorks/Hudson’s The Illusion is made.

Tony Kushner’s “freely adapted from L’Illusion Comique by Pierre Corneille” theatrical flourish of a play gets treated theatrically as classic theater with a capital “C.” This is theater with grad-school seriousness and the exactness one would expect of a Pulitzer Prize-winning auteur adapting a 17th-century French master playwright, as rendered by an award-winning regional theater. There isn’t a theatrical cliché unsprung with precise movements or undeclaimed enunciation. This Illusion is a great delight for those who delight in theater presented, not shaken or stirred.

With a tighter pace and performances marked with the same verve and physicality as Erik Gratton and Sandra Blaney, this Illusion might have been less academic and more engaging and moving, but as is, the production is stately and stylized art, a performance piece of museum quality. It has the same thrill as moving from gallery to gallery, taking in what is displayed, then moving on to the next presentation. And at two hours and 17 minutes, there is plenty of time to appreciate the details of the set, the mood created by the green and purple toplighting, the splendid swirl of the costumes, and the aural tidiness of the speeches.

With a cast of six (Gratton, Blaney, Sean F.B. Marrinan, Chris Rickett, Kevin Arcambault, Kate Stein) presenting multiple parts through multiple scenes, The Illusion shows the tale of a father attempting to reconcile with his long-lost son, with the help of a wizard who shows him snippets of the son’s life. The concluding twist should be as obvious as the theatrical clichés, and playwright Kushner’s cynical twist on playwright Corneille’s redemptive ending underscores the lessening of theater’s power in the 300 years between the play’s creation and its adaptation. Those who believe that acting is having the courage to tell the truth will be disappointed by The Illusion; those who believe that acting is lying with enthusiasm will find The Illusion a voyeuristic delight.


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