"The Illusion," playwright Tony Kushner's adaptation of a 17th-century swashbuckling classic, is a delightful tour-de-force of sly humor and artful stagecraft. It would be a difficult project for any professional theater company. As produced and performed by students in Southern Oregon University's Department of Performing Arts and directed by emeritus faculty member Dennis Smith, the play is dazzling.
The twists and turns of Kushner's elaborate plotting and word games immediately take hold when the stage lights go up on a minimalist "steam punk" fantasy set, with its references to the 19th-century steam machine images of H.G. Wells or Jules Verne, evoking the cave of a magician.
Kushner crafted "The Illusion" in 1988, as a sort of comic relief while he was working on his more profound and Pulitzer Prize-winning "Angels in America." He started with Pierre Corneille's "L'Illusion Comique," a literary exercise that used the device of several plays within a play to present all the formal styles of classical theater — pastoral, romance, tragedy, comedy and farce — while changing verbal conventions and staging for each scene. Kushner, a master of elaborate wordplay, took the academic format, telescoped it and made it into contemporary satire.
In "The Illusion," Pridamant (Tyler Kubat), a rather arrogant old bourgeois, arrives at the cave of the magician Alcandre (Grace Wolcott) to request that she show him what has become of the headstrong son (Aria Shahghasemi) he banished long ago. If the silent, glowering and imposing magician's assistant (Zlato Rizziolli) isn't frightening enough, the appearance of Alcandre, a leather and steam punk-attired dominatrix, nearly drives the old man off.
Alcandre, using an eerie magic mirror and a wonderfully intricate mechanical device — all interlocking wheels, gears and colored lights — conjures up the young man as he courts a fair and very rich damsel (Ginger Lockhart). The young woman, all Fragonard-like delicacy, feigns rejecting him while relying on her clever maid (Delaney Kentzell) as an intermediary. Unfortunately, the maid also falls in love with the charming suitor.
We learn that the young man is the servant of a foppish and self-deluding old fool (Samuel L. Wick), that there is an imperious rival for the lady's affections (Danny Walker), and that her father, Geronte (also played by Zlato Rizziolli), is not one to brook disobedience. There's also a glimpse into the not-so-happily-ever-after, after the lovers have wed and boredom and infidelity have replaced passion.
Notice that, with the exception of Pridamant and Alcandre, I haven't identified these characters by name. That's because, while the characters continue from scene to scene, their names change. This distresses poor Pridamant to no end but Alcandre sternly admonishes him, in flowery literary language, to sit down and shut up or she'll stop the magic.
And, trust me, you would not want to disobey Alcandre. As her tortured assistant can attest.
When the play within a play is done and Pridamant has found what he's sought, it is Kushner's ironic punch line — about reality, illusion and bills that must be paid — that remains.
The actors in "The Illusion" must walk a fine line among Kushner's classic theatrical stereotypes that, at the same time, are nuanced. The verbal style swoops like quicksilver between verse, contemporary quips and classical elaboration. SOU's student performers, each and every one of them, rise to the challenge. I can't think of a professional company that could do it better.
Brandon McCowan designed the lush 18th-century baroque costuming as well as Wolcott's impressive leather outfit. The intricate cave set was designed by SOU faculty member Sean O'Skea. Lighting is by Steven Coney and sound by Neil Peterson.
"The Illusion" plays at SOU's Center Square Theatre through June 2. Evening performances are at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, May 30-June 1, with matinees at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, June 1-2. Tickets are $21 regular, $18 senior, and $6 for students and can be purchased at the Performing Arts Box Office in the Theatre Arts Building lobby. Tickets can also be purchased with a credit card over the phone by calling 541-552-6348 or online at sou.edu/performingarts. For more information, visit sou.edu/theatre.
Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.