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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the August 7, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Drama Review: `The Illusion’
Although Pierre Corneille (1606-1684) is credited with
writing the first important French tragedy ("Le Cid"), the
poet-playwright was destined to be replaced as the premiere French
dramatist by Racine and virtually eclipsed a few years later by Moliere.
It is a shame we don’t see more of his work produced. It is comforting
to know that, out of a considerable canon of comedies and tragedies,
at least one of Corneille’s plays has been deemed worthy of resurrection.
In 1990, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner ("Angels
in America"), breathed new life into one of Corneille’s late comedies
"The Illusion" ("L’Illusion Comique"). His adaptation
has been popping up at various regional theaters for the past 12 years.
The result is a gift that is as welcome for its inherent pleasures
as it is an example of one writer’s respect for another. In this incarnation,
"The Illusion" contains quite a bit of new language as it
does Kushner’s own philosophical and sociological musings on the various
ways people love and lament. It also contains (in Kushner, we trust)
the sum and substance of Corneille’s intentions.
Praise to the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival for presenting this
enjoyable and unexpectedly bright and magical comedy. The magic in
the play is quite literal, and is approached with a sly and humorous
touch by director Paul Mullins. Mullins, who has numerous credits
as both an actor and a director at the Shakespeare Festival, has staged
the play with panache but also with an eye for what will keep audiences
intrigued and unwittingly committed to the play’s darkening and diverging
components. If one may assume that Kushner’s intent was to free the
original from the formality of its neo-classical prose and pretensions,
he has succeeded. We may also laud Mullins’ staging, as it cleanly
skewers the play’s irrevocable French spirit.
The play tells of a father who seeks out a magician’s powers to answer
a father’s questions about his long estranged son. The 17th-century
fable must have been a puzzler and a dazzler in its time, but it more
than expends its own mystique in this major re-shaping and re-telling.
Pridamant (John FitzGibbon), a wealthy, aging, autocratic, stiff-necked
lawyer of Avignon, is tormented by the sad reality that he banished
his only son and heir from his home for a minor offense some 15 years
ago. Pridamant is desperate to reunite with his wild and incorrigible
son (Robert Petkoff) who has not been heard of since. Pridamant goes
to the cave of Alcandre (Edmund Genest), a magician, to seek his help.
Alcandre’s way to help find out what happened to the
lost boy leads Pridamant down what seem to him like a number of blind
alleys. But the alleys that are conjured up are actually a trio of
strange, eye-opening illusions, romantic triangles, including some
exciting sword fights, in which two brave adversaries, played with
brio and buffoonery by Lorenzo Pisoni and Paul Niebanck, vie for the
love of three young maidens (all played delectably by the luminous
Margot White). The bright-eyed Amanda Ronconi is excellent as the
handmaiden and confidant who offers some perceptive and by no means
If Pridamant isn’t necessarily happy with the means by which his questions
are answered or with the answers themselves, the result is both touching
and funny and affords him a chance to see that there are other worlds
as real as his own. It is for us to see how much more there is to
love and discover in the world when we forgo what has been fixed and
made rigid by society.
Moving heavenly bodies loom over the dark and wondrous world conjured
up by set designer Michael Schweikardt. Except for Alcandre’s deaf
and dumb servant (Craig Wallace), voices echo eerily thanks to sound
designer Jason A. Tratta. The atmospheric lighting design by Michael
Gianitti, and the audacious 17th-century haute couture by costumer
Jacqueline Firkins, are splendid enhancements.
As the magician, Genest, another familiar festival player, gives a
performance beguilingly filled with wry and sly nuance. Variously
known as Calisto, Clindor, and Theogenes, Petkoff is making an impressive
festival debut as the lawyer’s estranged son. The stolid FitzGibbon
earns our sympathy if not our empathy in the role of Pridamant as
he learns of his son’s amusingly revealed fate. Paul Niebanck gets
the laughs he works hard for as the cowardly and dim-witted rival
Matamore. You won’t be sorry if you make a visit to "The Illusion"
— Simon Saltzman
Kirby Theater, Drew University, Madison, 973-408-5600. Pierre Corneille’s
17th-century comedy. $22 to $41. Performances Tuesdays through Sundays,
to August 25.
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