Dramashop proves that success can be IllusoryBy Vladimir Zelevinsky
Written by Pierre Corneille, freely adapted by Tony Kushner, Directed by Janet Sonenberg, Fights directed by Robert Walsh, Set designed by William Fregosi, Costumes designed by Leslie Cocuzzo Held
April 30, May 1 and 2 at 8 p.m. in Kresge Little Theatre
T he Illusion is a play about theater - but it is written with enough grace and conviction that it escapes the usual pitfalls of the self-referential theater that I usually carp about. It certainly helps that it was originally written in 1636 by Pierre Corneille (1606-1684), and therefore works not only as a postmodern meditation on the nature of theater, but also as a classical comedy/drama.
The story is quite simple: a rich lawyer, Pridamant (Jeremy Butler '98), travels to the cave of a reclusive magician, Alcandre (Edward W. Kohler G), to buy information about his son who ran away many years ago. In response, Alcandre shows Pridamant three magical illusions - the life of his son.
Produced by MIT Dramashop and directed by Theatre Arts Professor Janet Sonenberg, The Illusion is a showcase for truly excellent acting, and this can't be overstated. The play presents a certain problem, since the three illusions are all separate stories (although there are connections between them), and it takes an effort to get used to the jumps of the narrative. Both the framing story and the second illusion (the longest one, spanning about half of the total running time) are the best; the first illusion is somewhat slight, working only as a diverting romantic comedy, and the last one is, frankly, at bit on the boring side - late in the play is not the time for long conversational scenes when pretty much nothing happens. The cast, however, makes any rough transitions in the play as smooth as possible.
It would be hard to single out any of the actors; they are strong both alone and as part of the ensemble. Kohler avoids histrionics, instead giving Alcandre a soft-spoken demeanor with strong undercurrents of both humor and menace. Butler's Pridamant is a haughty lawyer in the beginning, which makes his character transformation - and he is the one that changes the most - even more impressive. Professor of Music and Theater Arts Michael Ouellette, as Alcandre's mute (or is he?) servant does wonders with a smaller part.
Special kudos should go to the actors who perform in the illusions themselves, since they have to play three different characters each, and each of these characters is a theatrical cliche (intentionally, of course). There's the romantic lead, Pridamant's son, in a suitably physical performance by Franz Elizondo-Schmelkes G. There's the leading lady, embodied by Stacy J. Pruitt '99 in perhaps the most dramatically consistent performance of the production. Less consistent but more exciting is Rachael A. Butcher '98 as the scheming maid - there are scenes when it is spellbinding to observe her emotional rollercoaster. Richard S. Thompkins '98 does three distinctly variations on the romantic rival, and there's an excellent sword fight between him and Pridamant's son (whose real name is not mentioned for most of the play).
The show is completely stolen by Robert W. Marcato G, who plays Matamore, a lunatic who wants to go to the moon (pun intended, I presume, by both Corneille and Kushner). His performance is laugh-out-loud funny, and the way Marcato digs into his character to unearth his essential humanity is amazing. He's utterly heartbreaking by the end of the play.
The technical aspects of the production are highly impressive as well. The costumes are just right, the lighting design is seamless, and the set is simply amazing, and has a few of surprises as well (I only wish those large gears would really turn).
There is only one misstep in Dramashop's production, and that occurs when the show is ending. I'm speaking about the song played over the final scene and during the audience's exit. This instrumental, quoted from a certain twentieth-century musical (No, No, Nanette!, I believe), is jarringly inappropriate, and clashes with about everything else in the production: period, era, style, costumes, mood, etcetera. I must admit that the decision to use this song is so startling that for a while I suspected that there was some deep meaning which I was simply missing. Maybe the point is a deliberate deconstruction of the theatrical illusion? Or maybe I'm just reaching.
In any case, this is the only element which doesn't work. Otherwise, The Illusion, with its magnificent set, strong acting, and plot twists, proves to be an excellent production and an impressive proof of the power of theater.