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.