Theater Review: “The Illusion” at Round House Silver Spring

Forum Theatre dazzles with this inspired meditation on love and appearances.
Joe Brack, Gwen Grastorf, Mark Halpern, Nanna Ingvarsson, and Brynn Tucker in The Illusion. Photograph by Melissa Blackall.
Joe Brack, Gwen Grastorf, Mark Halpern, Nanna Ingvarsson, and Brynn Tucker in The Illusion. Photograph by Melissa Blackall.

When it comes to love, very little is explicable. That could be the tagline for
Tony Kushner’s
The Illusion, currently playing in a production by Forum Theatre, with the following in parentheses: Never trust a magician who makes
her deaf-mute amanuensis do all the dirty work.

Loosely adapted from Pierre Corneille’s
L’Illusion Comique and first staged in 1988,
The Illusion is testament to Kushner’s brilliance as a writer; but this production reveals the hefty skills of another individual: director

Mitchell Hébert. Well known as an actor who recently won a Helen Hayes Award for his performance in Theater J’s
After the Fall, Hébert has crafted a riveting show, exploring love, loss, and the flimsy nature of appearances. He’s also done it with little
to work with but a cast of eight compelling actors, which makes the play’s resonance all the more impressive.

Pridamant (Brian Hemmingsen), a French lawyer, arrives at a fairground in the dead of night, guided only by his iPhone and seeking out Alcandre (Nanna Ingvarsson), a magician. Having
quarreled with his son many years ago, Pridamant wants to learn of the
younger man’s whereabouts, but
his true motives are unclear. “I want to make him sick with
guilt . . . I want to make him the heir to my fortune,” he tells
Alcandre, a vaguely menacing presence who claims to have cut
out the tongue of her assistant (a spooky
Aaron Bliden). Alcandre conjures up three visions of the boy, but in each he has a different name and a different identity, which only
adds to the layers of mystery and confusion surrounding the events onstage.

Through the magician’s scenes, the audience is exposed
to different examples of love, from Pridamant’s stern, forbidding love
for his son to the son’s pragmatic love for two different
women. “I love your beauty and her money,” he tells the servant
Lyse, while in the guise of Clindor, a manservant and
troubadour who falls for the wealthy Isabelle (Brynn Tucker), whom he’s supposed to be wooing for his master (the buffoonish
Scott McCormick). Ultimately, however, it
takes the removal of one lady’s qualities to make him realize which is
more important. Isabelle’s
father (Bliden again, in a different role), meanwhile, tells
her he loves her in a brutal, disassociated way, “like a bone
boiled clean”—but his love is no less real or significant than
any of the others exposed in Alcandre’s illusions.

While the audience watches Pridamant’s son in his
various adventures, the lawyer and the magician also observe, seated to
the side of the stage and as obviously enthralled as any
popcorn-guzzling member of the peanut gallery. It’s hard not to read

The Illusion as a metaphor for the theater and the
dazzling, discomfiting spectacles it can produce. “I came to you to
launder the fabric
of my recollected life,” says Pridamant, dismayed, when he
doesn’t see quite what he wants to. Hébert’s production, complete
with chilling, hooded shapes, magic tricks, and moments of
guttural screaming, is no cakewalk either, taking the audience
to some dark corners of the human psyche. But the dreamlike
optimism that suffuses the play, and the all-around strength of
the cast and creative team, makes it a vision that’s a real joy
to behold.

The Illusion
is at Round House Silver Spring through June 16. Running time is two hours and 20 minutes. Tickets ($25) are available on
Forum Theatre’s website.

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