‘The Illusion’ at Forum Theatre by Anne Tsang

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Forum Theater’s production of Tony Kushner’s The Illusion, directed by Mitchell Hébert, entrances the audience right from the start. As the magician Alacandre says,“When you start these things, you never know how it’s going to end.” Little did I know how right she was!

Kushner’s adaptation of Pierre Corneille’s L’Illusion Commique is a comical and philosophical commentary on love and regret, and is filled with parental disappointment, passion, jealousy, conspiracy, revenge, and murder. Through the witty word plays and repartees that is Kushner’s signature, The Illusion depicts an ailing and aging Pridamant’s last attempt at finding the son he cast out many years ago. He goes to the magician, Alacandre, who conjures up three episodes from the son’s life since he was cast out by his father. The talented cast weaves such a delicate fabric of disillusionment, and magic that at times, I had trouble separating the conjured illusions from reality.

Lyse (Gwen Grastorf) cunningly tricks Matamore (Scott McCormick) into going to the secret rendezvous of the forbidden lovers, Clindor and Isabelle. Photo by Melissa Blackall.

Upon entering the stage area, the décor, the exposed filament lighting by Ariel Benjamin, and the music (a perfect selection by Sound Designer Matthew Nielson) immediately transports you to a whimsical world, reminiscent of a carnival from your childhood. The stage, designed by Daniel Pinha, is set inside Alacandra’s tent and is divided into 2 circular areas – an inner and outer circle. In the outer circle Alacandre, Pridamant, and the Amanuensis sit and watch as each episode unfolds. The inner circle, which Alacandre warns Pridamant that he is not to enter or there would be serious consequences, is where the scenes from Pridamant’s son’s life unfolds.

Alacandre (Nanna Ingvarsson) draws the dark magic that powers her abilities from the suffering of her assistant (Aaron Bliden). Photo by Melissa Blackall.

A magician enters and the audience is drawn in and becomes a part of the show. He does several card tricks, and then chooses a volunteer from the audience. The happy carnival memories, the fun and relaxing atmosphere of the carnival, and the laughter of the audience as the magician pokes fun at his volunteer – all help to draw the audience into the idyllic scene.

This is all in sharp contrast to the dark and menacing first scene as Pridamant (Brian Hemmingsen), arrives at Alacandre’s tent and comes face to face with the eerie and silent Amanuensis, Alacandre’s assistant. Hemmingsen does an excellent job as the ever-righteous father who faced with his mortality realizes he still loves his son and doesn’t wish to die alone. Aaron Bliden’s portrayal of the enslaved and tortured Amanuensis sent chills up my spine. These frightening scenes are made all the more scarier by the realistic sound effects by Sound Designer Matthew Nielson. At one point when there was thunder and lightning, I was afraid a storm would start and I would get wet!

Alacandre (Nanna Ingvarsson), agrees to show Pridamant his son and conjures up three episodes. Each episode, darker, more cynical, and more tragic than the one before it, inexplicably, shows the young man (portrayed by Mark Halpern) in a slightly different world where names and allegiances have changed. In each scene he is surrounded by a beautiful and wealthy maiden (Brynn Tucker), her witty and cunning maid (Gwen Grastorf), and rival suitors (Joe Brack and Scott McCormick). Each scene in the young man’s life seems to represent the stages of love – giddy excitement, acceptance, and a bitter end.

The costumes by Kristy Leigh Hall, while not lavish, are befitting of each character. Tucker’s three characters (Melibea, Isabelle, and Hippolyta) are dressed in the prettiest of outfits in each of the three episodes. In the first episode, Calisto, shown on the day he is kicked out of his father’s home, is dressed in a well made suit, indicative of an upper class status and Pleribo is in a fussy and frilly outfit, which reflects his personality. In the second episode, Clindor is dressed in a servant’s outfit while Adraste is in a no non-sense military uniform. In the last episode, all of the characters are dressed in black, foreshadowing the tragedy that will follow.

The written words of the play are only as good as the actors who bring them to life…and this cast is spectacular! Halpern is astounding as the lively, vibrant, and head over heels in love Calisto, as the rapacious Clindor, and as the bitter and disillusioned with love Theogenes. The excellent timing between Tucker and Grastorf in each of the scenes, as well as Grastorf’s cool reactions contrasted with Tucker’s over-the-top reactions to the events that unfold are comedic genius. Brack, moves from the pampered, whimpering Pleribo to the confident, commanding, and violent Adraste with such ease that it feels like he is two different people. Scott McCormick as Matamore, another of Clindor’s rival suitors is the comedic highlight of the show. His boasts and quips are delivered with such seriousness and innocence and are so well-timed that it seemed like he could make the audience laugh on command.

Forum Theatre’s The Illusion with its amazingly talented cast, fascinating storyline, and surprise twist ending – is a definite ‘Must See!’

Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission.

Adraste (left, Joe Brack) challenges Clindor (right, Mark Halpern) to a duel. Photo by Melissa Blackall.

The Illusion plays through June 16, 2012 at Forum Theater at Round House Silver Spring – 8641 Colesville Road, in Silver Spring, MD. For tickets, call (240) 644-1100 or order them online.

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