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SEE THIS NOW: Court Theatre's The Illusion

By Julienne Bilker in Arts & Entertainment on Apr 8, 2010 9:40PM

photo of John Reeger and Chris Sullivan by Michael Brosilow
What more can you ask from a play that has everything? Mystery, comedy, sword fights, love, magic, about an extension? And forgiveness for not seeing it sooner? Although our absolution is still up for debate, unfortunately we are certain that an extension is not in the cards for The Illusion, which is ending its run at the Court Theatre this Sunday. Written by Tony Kushner shortly before he penned Angels In America, The Illusion is a "free adaptation" of Pierre Corneille's 1636 meta-theatrical play L'illusion Comique. So what do you get when you mix French baroque with one of the greatest playwrights of our time? An appropriately classic-feeling, effortlessly modern play that, like we said, has everything. And under Court Artistic Director Charles Newell's direction, everything is done to perfection. The Illusion is moving, smart, funny, consummately acted and impeccably designed - in other words, it's an incredibly satisfying theatrical experience.

In 17th century France, Pridamant has come to see Alcandre, an illusionist of sorts, in hopes that the necromancer (vocab word of the day!) will be able to find the son he banished years ago. With the help of his forcibly mute, troll-ish assistant Amanuensis, Alcandre conjures visions of Pridamant's son - the son's name is up for debate, in case you're wondering why we haven't named him. As Pridamant watches his son's misadventures (with us watching him watching - hey, we said it was meta), he grows increasingly confused about the kind of person his son has become, and guilty about their estrangement. The majority of the show's content is in these plays-within-a-play, so it's a good thing they're so much fun. The storylines are deceptively simple (boy falls in love with girl above his station, boy competes with wealthy suitors for her affection, maid meddles on girl's behalf for selfish reasons disguised as altruism); the emotions involved are complex. The Illusion's ensemble cast hits the right level of sincerity in its exploration of the script's many unanswerable questions, giving the audience flashes of clarity before turning everything upside down.

As Alcandre, the pseudo-mad-scientist, or "chemist of emotions," as he calls himself, Chris Sullivan is disturbingly (and amusingly) cavalier, providing a stark contrast to John Reeger's tightly-wound (though relatable in his emotional weariness) Pridamant. However, we were most fascinated by the dynamic between magician and assistant Amanuensis (Kevin Gudahl), who may or may not be a willful accomplice in his master's endeavors. Silent for at least 90% of the show, Gudahl communicates with incredible depth and precision. As far as the other side of the supernatural wall (ie, "the visions") goes, the aforementioned boy/girl/maid/suitors are all perfectly cast, but there were two stand-outs for us. As the scheming maid, Elizabeth Ledo's emotional acuity combined with her sharp timing makes for a rich, captivating performance. Given some of the funniest one-liners we have ever heard, Timothy Edward Kane (suitor Matamore) comes dangerously close to stealing the show. There is something delicious in the way he casually spits insulting descriptors like "dread Medusa of the linen closet" (referencing the maid). Although he spends most of his time onstage being hysterically funny, Kane also deftly navigates his character's small journey of self-discovery, lending a bit of weight to his role.

We would be remiss if we didn't call out The Illusion's fantastic design team's integral contribution to this show's success. Scenic designer Collette Pollard has used Court's space to its full advantage. As the entire show takes place in Alcandre's cave, the set is - wisely - minimalist, with the majority of the action occurring on a slab of rock that appears to be floating. Jacqueline Firkins' lavish costumes are juxtaposed against the crude mechanical aesthetic created by exposed walls, ropes and gears, raising questions about the level of Alcandre's manipulation and blurring the boundary between the "vision" world and the present one. Co-sound designers Josh Horvath and Nick Keenan have created an apt and subtle aural landscape - the faint echo of Pridamant's voice as he enters the illusionist's lair for the first time is a prime example of design elements supporting each other to construct a cohesive environment. We don't need to see the cave to believe it's a cave.

The Illusion
is one of the most well-rounded productions we've seen in a long time, if not ever. And in case you forgot, it's closing Sunday, so get down to Hyde Park.

The Illusion, through Sunday. Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave. Tickets $32-$56 ($10 for UChicago students or student rush tickets), 773-753-4472.