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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

selfless observations.

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"

a reality.

— Simon Saltzman

The Illusion, New Jersey Shakespeare Festival, F.M.

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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