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If, a few blocks from the Mount Vernon Square Metro stop, you see some disoriented folk, maybe a little dressed-up, wandering into Blagden Alley, just strides away from the vacant lot with the discarded mattresses, perhaps you can guide them to the cave of Alcandre the magician. Alcandre conjured the cave out of the Signal 66 gallery, a livery-stable-turned-warehouse-turned-art-space.
Oh, and if you see an elderly gent wearing a century-old suit and carrying a canealong with the weight of the worldsend him Alcandre’s way, too, won’t you? That would be Pridamont, a lawyer from Avignon, whose recent heart trouble has him facing mortality and looking for the son he terrorized into running away from home some 15 years ago.
Of course, a few weeks from now, the space will be Signal 66 again, and Pierre Corneille’s play The Illusion, as adapted by Tony Kushner and staged by Rorschach Theatre, will seem like nothing more than, well, a lost illusion, but one that will linger teasingly in the mind. As conceived by Rorschach co-director Jenny McConnell, Corneille’s enigmatic meditation on love, fate, and the dreamy and dastardly deceptions of the theater is very much the dark comedy you’d expect from the 17th-century father of French tragedy. In this version, and in this age, it walks a narrow beam above Princess Bride preciousness and Dungeons & Dragons malarkey. But Corneille’s breadth and Kushner’s bite balance The Illusion safely as it lurches toward our spines, where it sends, now and then, strange little shivers of recognition, fear, and longing.
To recount the plot is to recount many, for Alcandre (Jesse Terrill), with the help of his stolid amanuensis (Mike Glenn), shows Pridamont (Tim Marrone) what became, or may have become, or could become, of Pridamont’s lost son (Grady Weatherford). Has the son grown into a reckless buffoon, Calisto, wooing a lady, Melibea (Rahaleh Nassri), from her garden? Or has he, as Clindor, happened into the employ of the stout, wealthy megalomaniac Matamore (Scott McCormick) and been left to seduce Matamore’s amore, Isabelle (Nassri again), at great peril and with impure intention? Or has he becomegoodnessTheogones, that bloodlusty fighter who betrays his wife, Hyppolyta (Nassri), and the prince he serves, Florilame (Jason Stiles), just for the sport of it, only to come to his senses a bit too late?
What’s with all these names and scenarios, anyway? Pridamont wonders, and so do we. “Concentrate on the general outline and leave the details to me,” counsels Alcandre. Oh yeah, he adds, “and keep quiet!”
Of course, Pridamont decides, his son’s a con man of some kind, who has nothing but a conniving cunning to make his way through this danger-pocked world. A loveless childhood has turned him into a man capable only of an animal astuteness, not of love.
Seeing the what-will-bes and the might-have-beens causes the crusty old Avignon attorney great turmoil, which Alcandre seems to quite enjoy. But then what, but sadism, can one expect from a dark-arted master who, when asked about his deaf and dumb servant, grins and replies, “I did the surgery myself”? Terrill is terrific as Alcandre. Dressed like a Depression-era Marxist, with a wry and dour demeanor to match, he’s in a unique position to comfort the old manand tortures him accordingly. And Marrone not only convinces us of Pridamont’s pain and shame and regret, but also hints at the narrow worldview and shortsightedness that drove away his son in the first place.
Whatever the fate, or fates, of that son, one thing’s for certainwhether he be Calisto, Clindor, or Theogones, he is, as Melibea puts it, “excessive, and strange.” Weatherford vigorously conveys that slightly psychotic and unpredictable drive his father sensed in him even as a child. Perhaps like all children, depending on the course things take, he has within him a lover, a poet, a politician, a yes-man, and a back-stabber.
And, perhaps like all children, he may allow each of those personae to emerge depending on, among other things, his luck in love. Enter the radiant Nassri, who as his loverssought or slightedprojects a keenly intelligent beauty that centers and secures Corneille/Kushner’s flighty narrative.
Stiles brims with the haughty indignation of the wanton lover’s repeated rival. And in the role of the lady’s servant, in various guises and situations, is Yasmin Tuazon, who helps anchor these odd scenarios with her knowing glances and her admirable articulation, of motives and sentiment, through the winding vines of a quaintly tongue-twisting text, complete with occasional couplets.
Tongue twists and grotesquerie are the quintessence of the harebrained Matamore, who can’t conceive of taking a step without altering the earth with his grandness. Not exactly a natural lady’s manhe boasts of having “a face that has sunk a thousand ships”he compensates by what he considers his sheer, awesome authority and his angel-dusted way with words. “I am so great, at times I want to flee myself,” he confesses. But, in fact, he’s really “overcome by prolixity,” opines the long-suffering Clindor.
Just when The Illusion, itself, seems close to being overcome by prolixity, it takes some clever turns and, along the way, offers some tempestuous musings on the “blood sport” of love. Love, we are told, is not just an “illusion” but a “demonic catastrophe.” It is also, however, the oxygen that sustains us”only a dream that whispers across the rock of earth,” but a dream without which the world would be a very cold stone.
Alcandre, it becomes hammeringly clear, is the envoy of the playwright. The sorcerer ruthlessly sends his assistant across into the conjured world, and Glenn gives us a harrowing little glimpse of what that crossing entails. Alcandre turns others’ pain to his gain, and his clients’ tears to treasures. Perhaps he is the con man. Or does he earn his reward? Corneille and Kushner have us wondering until The Illusion ends and we make our way out into the alley and to the caves of our own beautiful, galling, or horrific potentialities. CP