Games of Love | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Before he emerged as France's first great tragic playwright, Pierre Corneille wrote comedies. They're not done much today--nor are the tragedies for that matter--but in France in the mid-17th century they were pretty popular. Especially with commoners, to whom Corneille often appealed even when he was under attack from the elite. The elite tended to follow the lead of Cardinal Richelieu, an early backer of Corneille who eventually turned against him. The commoners tended to follow their own instincts.

In The Illusion, Tony Kushner's 1988 free adaptation of Corneille's 1635 The Comic Illusion, a wizard makes an elitist cry like a commoner. The magician Alcandre is visited in his cave by Pridamant, a well-to-do lawyer (like most of Corneille's family) who has driven away his son Clindor with his authoritarian demands. ("This will not do," Pridamant remembers saying as he regarded his newborn son. "This is not like me.") Pridamant comes to ask Alcandre to find Clindor, but he gets more than he bargained for: as Pridamant watches, the wall of Alcandre's cave comes alive with conjured images of Clindor's life.

A muddled life it seems--so any parent would think: Clindor changes identities at whim as he lies, fights, and stumbles through various dangerous liaisons involving a young lady, Melibea; her scheming and saucy maid Elicia; and Clindor's rivals for Melibea's affection. These adventures--"the blood sport of love" the play calls them--start out amusing, as Elicia conspires with Clindor to win Melibea's heart for the young man, and as Clindor himself then woos Melibea with comic passion. But things get a little sticky when Clindor--or whatever name he happens to be using at the time--has a fling with Elicia too, then ditches her because Melibea is richer. Then the vengeful Elicia contrives to have Clindor arrested for murder--it was actually self-defense, but the dead man was a nobleman, after all. Pridamant is horrified not only at what is befalling his son but also at his own powerlessness to prevent it.

Because Corneille's comedies aren't done much these days, it's likely most audiences won't know how The Illusion turns out. And I won't reveal the twist ending--which is to say you should see this play.

Kushner seems to have been attracted by the original play's John Patrick Shanley (author of Moonstruck's screenplay) aspect: the flow of extravagant language from the mouths of shallow yet sophisticated youths who play "games of passionate exertion" while their older but no wiser relatives watch and comment, as well as the neat contrasts between the self-referential artificiality of the images Alcandre conjures and the seeming naturalism of the dialogues between Alcandre and Pridamant.

Director Harriet Spizziri and her talented design team have been caught up in Corneille and Kushner's uses of enchantment. Spizziri has assembled a fine cast--James Deuter as the haughty then humbled Pridamant; Matt De Caro as the eccentric Alcandre; Thomas Kelly as Clindor, the young man who is both too much and not enough the son of his arrogant father; Lia D. Mortenson as the tricky Elicia; Barbara Prescott as the enigmatic Melibea; Ned Mochel as Clindor's fiery rival; Chris Hogan as Alcandre's unpredictable servant (whose sudden disappearance in a puff of smoke is a neat trick); and Nathan Rankin as the swaggering madman whose pursuit of illusion finally leads him off to the moon. Spizziri has guided them into engaging characterizations whose low-key quizzical attitudes highlight the script's charm while offsetting its floridness.

Set and lighting designer Robert G. Smith, a reliable master of beauty on a budget, has created two distinct worlds for the play's action. Alcandre's cave is an intriguing space of black and midnight blue from which Pridamant can watch Clindor move around a vibrantly green hilltop garden that's set against a glowing blue sky. Straight out of a Claude Lorrain painting, this seemingly limitless vista's beauty and power, like the settings of Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon, invite us to speculate on the wonder and foolishness of love. It's all an illusion of course--everything onstage, and maybe everything in life, Corneille and Kushner seem to say--but what a grand illusion.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Roger Lewin--Jennifer Girard Studio.

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