REVIEW: The Illusion (Court Theatre)

A Love Letter for the Theatre

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Court Theatre presents
 
The Illusion
 
Written by Pierre Corneille
Freely adapted by Tony Kushner
Directed by Charles Newell
Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave. (map)
through April 11th (more info)

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

Essentially, Pierre Corneille /Tony Kushner’s The Illusion is a play about theatre. It dwells on theatre’s power to evoke, transform, and relate. But the medium has many limitations. There is an inherent tension—the actions seen on stage are just an illusion of real life. Kushner points out that theatre can be likened to a dream, a the-illusion_008 hallucination. Charles Newell’s enlightening production of the 1988 script now at Court Theatre freefalls through all sorts of storytelling layers, piecing together a tale that is hilarious, dreamlike, and startlingly poignant.

The posters claim that this Illusion is Kushner’s “freely adapted” translation of Pierre Corneille’s L’Illusion Comique, a 1636 work way ahead of it’s time in terms of theatrical theory. And Kushner is pretty liberal in his translating, slapping on a whole extra illusion. The play isn’t as vast as his magnum opus Angels in America, but the kernels of Kushner’s trademark lyrical playfulness and socio-political awareness are scattered freely throughout the text.

Although usually handled well here, sometimes Newell loses balance of all the narrative layers and the production is a bit muddled. But the ride is worth it.

In the multilayered play, Pridamant (John Reeger) comes to a creepy magician, Alcandre (Chris Sullivan), to see if the man can conjure up his estranged son (Michael Mahler). Alcandre than confronts the old man with several visions skipping through various moments of life and loves of the young man. It’s like Baroque-period television broadcast from a cave. Through the illusions, we watch the boy temper the steamy hot passions of love with the ever-present chill of poverty. We also get to enjoy the ridiculous posturing of Matamore (the hilarious Timothy Edward Kane), a warrior whose bragging ability is matched only by his cowardice. The character names change from one illusion to the next, making Pridamant and us ask if they really represent past events or spring from our own fertile imagination.

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Newell faces numerous challenges here, and he comes out successful. There’s magic, crazy scenic effects, and the fact that three characters are on-stage the whole time just watching the illusions. Collette Pollard’s intricate set packs plenty of surprises. Alcandre’s cave is enormous, spooky, and endlessly fascinating. For example, as each illusion starts, giant gears chug along underneath the floating platform that functions as Alcandre’s gigantic crystal ball. Lighting designer John Culbert also explores this magical element in his design, shaping and evolving the multiple worlds. Jacqueline Firkins’ costumes are rich and dig to the core of each character. Newell brings all of this together in a production that obviously loves bathing in theatricality.

Most of the performances are magnificent. Kane is simply brilliant, commanding the stage with each pompous gesture and absurd boast. Reeger and Sullivan do a good job exploring the quirkiness of their “reality,” along with Kevin Gudahl, who plays Alcandre’s much-abused, tongueless servant Amanuensis. The world of the illusions has a whole different energy, which is totally refreshing. Elizabeth Ledo does radiant work as the scheming maid Elicia/Lyse/Clarina. The young lovers of the story are probably the weakest links in the production. Mahler seems disconnected to everything else and rings false in a few moments. Hilary Clemens as the thrice-named object of his affections is more in-tune with the other elements, but she could definitely push a bit farther. The weak points aren’t glaring, but serve as a reminder that this production could go even further.

Rarely do two artistic pioneers collaborate when there is four-hundred years of distance between them. In that light, The Illusion is an uncommon delight. Under the steady hand and imaginative head of Newell, The Court has a fantastical triumph here. Although there are some bumps, this Illusion reminds and reassures us that theatre is a powerful art form when its power is harnessed by the right hands.

 
Rating: ★★★
 

Extra Credit

 

View (2010-03) The Illusion - Court Theatre
         

Review: Court Theatre’s “The Mystery of Irma Vep”

Just go see it. Now.

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Court Theatre presents:

The Mystery of Irma Vep

by Charles Ludlam
directed by Sean Graney
thru December 13th (ticket info)

reviewed by Oliver Sava

Irma Vep 1 Productions like Court Theatre‘s The Mystery of Irma Vep are the reason why theater will always survive as an art form. The rush of watching two actors play multiple characters in a live setting with rapid fire costume (and gender) changes while telling a story about werewolves, vampires, ancient Egyptian princesses, and missing wives is unbelievable. This is an experience that you can’t find at the movies, can’t stream on YouTube, and can’t download to your PS3. The amount of energy required to successfully pull off Charles Ludlam‘s penny dreadful is astounding, and Erik Hellman and Chris Sullivan give masterful performances as the play’s six characters. Whether they’re playing "The Last Rose of Summer" on dulcimers, crawling over audience members transported to the pyramids of Cairo, or fondling mummified breasts, the actors never drop their energy, and the result is two of the most hilarious and exhilarating hours seen on the Chicago stage this season.

Sean Graney has established himself as one of the city’s best directors when it comes to high energy, high manic productions, and the fact that he can seamlessly transition from a heartwarming children’s theater production like The 100 Dresses (our review) to the risque, raunchy Irma Vep while maintaining a consistent directorial voice is mind boggling. Graney loves to get his actors in the audience at some point during his productions, and a scene where Hellman, as widowed archaeologist Lord Edgar, and Sullivan, as Muppet-browed Egyptian tour guide Alcazar, move through the rows of the house on their way to the stage at the start of Act II is a riot. Graney tears down the barrier between audience and actor, and Hellman sat on the laps of my guest and I, offered me his hand as he reached across audience members to shake Sullivan’s, and leapt over bags and jackets in the aisles, never dropping character.

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Hellman and Sullivan are two of the sharpest actors in Chicago theater, and they are insanely good in this production. Their vocal work is spot on, playing with exaggerated dialects and wildly varied pitches, and their physical work is outstanding. Casting a man of Chris Sullivan‘s size as the ingenue Lady Enid is guaranteed funny, but Sullivan captures the femininity of the character so well that the humor is amplified. The same goes for Hellman, playing the maid Jane with a hilarious mix of dainty, dirty, and sassy. But what makes these actors so phenomenal is their commitment to the world of the play. Hellman is supposed to dust everything, and he dusts everything: chairs, flowers, walls, books, footlights. Sullivan is handed a Pringle at the end of the play and delivers the line "I have a Pringle" with such seriousness that the viewer can’t help but wonder the symbolic importance of the potato chip. And the aforementioned dulcimer duet is bizarre yet completely captivating; the entire house sat in awed silence until the absurdity of the situation awakened hysterical laughter.

A show like Irma Vep has a huge "How’d they do that?!" factor, and Graney answers any questions about how such a technically complex show is put together with an absolutely genius final scene. The actors take the stage for the last time, but they are joined by the backstage crew and the production’s most valuable player: the costume rack. As the two men tie up the loose ends of Ludlam’s ridiculous plot they switch between characters and costumes on stage, stripping away illusion and revealing the magic that goes on behind the scenes. It’s an amazing sequence that is further amplified by the actors’ commitment to their roles, juxtaposing the actor’s job of creating reality with the inherent artifice of theater that is being presented to the audience. It’s intelligent, it’s hilarious, it’s brilliant. And that is The Mystery of Irma Vep in a nutshell.

 

Rating: ★★★★

 

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 Creative Team

Sean Graney – Director
Jack Magaw – Scenic Designer
Alison Siple – Costume Designer
Heather Gilbert – Lighting Designer
MIchael Griggs – Sound Designer
Ellen Hay – Production Stage Manager
Sara Gammage – Stage Manager