What is real, imaginary, wishful thinking, dreaming and fantasy when it comes to the mental gyrations of making life choices and dealing with reality? Tony Kushner tackles such heady topics via a 17th century French farce, mixes in love, philosophical musings, and deception, more like self-delusion.
Directed with a swift zany touch by Mitchell Hébert, the consistently stunning and provocative Forum Theatre pulls yet another winner out of its hat.
On the surface, the premise seems dark and somber containing layer after layer of hidden meaning, intrigue, fantasy, and discovery, all wrapped in Kushner’s mischievous and marvelous text. A well-to-do lawyer, so desperate to contact his son Calisto who he cast out years ago as a n’er do well, visits a sorcerer, more like a conjure woman, in a final attempt to make peace, or if not, at least know definitively if he’s dead or alive.
Stylistically, the tale is told in the context of a circus carnival, where even before the lights dim and with carousel music well underway, a character emerges performing card tricks with members of the audience. Mix that with a touch of the French Baroque where some of the soliloquies in verse have pangs of aching and longing, add a dash of farce and a whisper of the fantastical, all anchored with current sensibilities about life and death.
I know, I know — the thing sounds like a complete mishmash, and is probably why it’s not performed a lot, but in the right hands where the production brings you into the realm of its own being, it works, and this one does.
In addition to the directing, part of the magic comes from the exquisite casting. First of all, there is simply no one like the inimitable Nanna Ingvarsson, who, with a penetrating gaze can hold a scene in the palm of her hand and leave you breathless.
As sorcerer, she commandeers extraordinary moments, bringing visions to life for the weary well-heeled lawyer. Attended to by her muted man-servant nicely played by Aaron Bliden, Ingvarsson barks orders, conjures up visions, stalks unsuspecting minions and approaches each segment with a razor sharp stroke.
She is matched by the equally inimitable Brian Hemmingsen as the desperately seeking father, who helped put the Forum’s Judas Iscariot on the map. Hemmingsen can be relied on for a full-throttled delivery and he delivers big time. These two go at it like a brazen matador and ferociously charging bull, then curl up on the corner chairs watching how the action plays out. Their concentrated focus from the sidelines on the unfolding scenes is thrilling as the text unfurls with abandon.
As the estranged son’s love interest, Brynn Tucker continues to prove that she can balance her superb physical grace and stamina, seen as Geneviere in Synetic’s King Arthur, with a clearly delineated theatricality for her character. At one point, as the mistress she rebuffs the commoner’s advances, spitting out venomous tirades of tumultuous loathing. Within moments however, as her maid helps portray Calisto as caring and sincere, Tucker as mistress gently softens in crucial moments of precious interchange between the two—both actors have charismatic appeal.
Fresh from his portrayal of the befuddled and newly betrothed husband in Constellation’s Blood Wedding, Mark Halpern as Calisto exudes the same adorable charm and would be totally irresistible were he not such a rake. He seems hot on the trails of the love of his life, but how much is illusion when he also professes love for the chambermaid, ably played by Gwen Grastorf with long-suffering resignation? The script twists and turns and the actors under Hébert’s steady direction twist right along with it.
Joe Brack attacks his roles first as a hapless suitor tentatively flailing his arms, terrorized at the prospect of taking a sucker punch. In a later vision, he takes on the mantle of the aristocracy wreaking havoc and disdain for the penniless wannabe actor.
Scott McCormick completes the winning ensemble spouting some of Kushner’s most exquisite and illuminating text, while also serving as the makeshift blowhard, so full of his own emptiness that he’s used unwittingly to foil tragic consequences of the suitor’s duel. McCormick kneels in supplication, thrashes about in inner turmoil and finally finds a way to make peace with his lot by becoming the man in the moon. Fantastic.
The set by Daniel Pinha consists of a large circle, center stage, with a raised perimeter, feeling much like a cast off from a three-ring circus, where some of the music seems to come straight from the Big Top. A heavily draped red velvet curtain at the back of the stage completes the look of a carnival, while a cozy seating and lamp shade lighting in an old fashioned parlor is off to the side for characters to observe the vision or “illusion.”
Matthew Nielson’s creative sound design captures the eerily familiar yet menacing tones of a circus carnival on the edge of madness where you’re not sure if that clown lurching towards you is smiling or grimacing. Nuanced as provocatively as the rest of the production, the organ bellows, voices are darkly miked as if coming from the underworld, while, in one fascinating scene, the Latin rhythms of the Gypsy Kings adds a pulsating beat.
Kushner’s Illusion is not an easy production to pull off, with its layers of nuances, multi-named characters in three sets of visions, with altered states of character motivation. Forum’s artistic directors pondered long and hard about when and how to produce it and made their move when Hébert came on the scene along with the finest cast this side of Judas I.
Being immersed in Kushner’s text as part of the Forum’s The Illusion is like having an out of body experience where you come away wondering about your own blurred lines between fact, fiction, and fantasy, with fleeting residual thoughts long after the lights have gone dark.
Forum Theatre’s production of The Illusion is onstage thru June 16, 2012 at Round House Silver Spring, 8641 Colesville Road Silver Spring, MD.
Written by Tony Kushner
Adapted from Pierre Corneille
Directed by Mitchell Hébert
Produced by Forum Theatre
Reviewed by Debbie MinterJackson
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes with one intermission