… “an extravagant trifle” …
The Illusion is well produced, stunningly acted, and trivial. It’s interesting, though, for the attention it brings to formal aspects in theater history. When Corneille wrote L’Illusion Comique in 1635, it was highly experimental for the time — daring variations on the theme of how to write a play by a young but experienced playwright (7 plays written by the age of 29). As one would surely learn if one took the course in college, in L’Illusion Comique Corneille breaks with the three classic unities of action, time and place, mixes various traditions – tragic-comedy, pastoral, Commedia del’arte, etc. — and incorporates not one (as in Hamlet) but multiple plays within a play, the characters’ names changing in concert. This play about the evanescence of all things is as confusing as it’s meant to be. It’s very much a precocious — by close to 400 years — exercise in deconstruction
This is not, however, simply Kushner’s translation of Corneille’s play but an adaptation: Kushner simplified the structure somewhat, and in many places substituted his own poetry for Corneille’s, with a focus on the pains of love that seems separate from the characters and has something of a modern whine to it.
How does it play (especially if, like me, you didn’t take that 17th-century French drama course?) After seeing it, I did some research on Corneille’s original play and its context, and what I learned about its experimental aspects was extremely interesting. I found watching The Illusion, however, mainly boring, with some perking up at surprising moments toward the end (I was almost ready to leave after the first act but I hung in there), a few good laughs and, scattered here and there, some fine poetry.
It starts in a dark, spooky magician’s cave, where a father enters looking for news of his son. The father had thrown the boy out of the house years ago because he was a troublemaker and hard to handle, but now, nearing the end of life, feeling guilt and ambivalent love, he yearns to know what happened to his son. The cave has two creepy denizens, the magician, Alcandre, and her gnome-like, scary servant, piano player and “Amanuensis”, whose tongue she’s cut out and ears deafened, or so she says. Together they conjure up episodes from the son’s life for the father to watch … and things are not looking good. We see the young man — serially named Calisto, Clindor and Theogenes — as a philanderer, a gold-digger, a heart-breaker, precariously near death, and dead, causing his father great grief (in other words: the son fulfilled his promise). But things are not as they seem, in case you thought they were.
The situations Calisto etc. gets into of courtly love and infidelity come across as silly: early on, there’s no sign of depth or meaning so the episodes are irritating rather than interesting. In Act II the increasing convolutions become so preposterous that they take on the independent life of the excessive, and they are helped by outstanding character acting. In particular, Henry Stram (also great as the servant) is powerfully weird and intense as the heroine’s wretchedly mean father, and Peter Bartlett is fascinating and touching as the bewigged, pompous Matamore whose dreamy sadness we come to know. The subtle and humorous expressions that cross Merritt Weaver’s face as the servant who figures out how to strike it rich are a pleasure to watch when things otherwise get foolish. Throughout, Lois Smith has great stage presence as the magician.
So there are some saving graces in The Illusion, including especially the prompt to learn more about Corneille, and all in all I’m not sorry I saw it, but not seeing it would have been fine, too. Corneille called his play at various times “a strange monster,” a “caprice,” and “an extravagant trifle, ” descriptions that survive Kushner’s adaptation. Corneille knew what he was talking about.
The Illusion plays at the Signature Theatre on West 42nd Street in NYC through July 11.