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: Writers’ “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead”

Long live “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead

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Writers’ Theatre present:

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead

By Tom Stoppard
Directed by Michael Halberstam
Thru December 6th (but tickets)

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

R-and-G-2 The pre-show announcement for Writers’ Theatre‘s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead asks audience members to lean forward and engage rather than sit back and relax. This is probably to reduce whiplash when director Michael Halberstam grabs you by the brain, straps in your heart, and sends you flying through the rush of heightened language and emotion that is Tom Stoppard‘s tragicomic masterpiece. The story of Hamlet’s two school chums that become accomplices in their friend’s destruction while discovering the impossibility of life has become one of the defining pieces of modern theater, and Writers’ production never loses steam. Anchored by the electric Sean Fortunato and Timothy Edward Kane as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Halberstam directs his cast through the labyrinth of Stoppard’s incredibly dense and wordy script to find the emotion beneath the absurdity of the play, and the end result is a Stoppard production that is accessible while still maintaining its academic roots.

From the very top of the show, Fortunato and Kane capture the chemistry that comes from years of comraderie. They acheive a synchronicity that makes it difficult to imagine the two separately, and even their monologues benefit from the other’s presence. The two actors listen to each other actively and react realistically, and their friendship is a connection to a more relatable and emotional world. Furthermore, they’re fantastic comedic actors, employing a refreshing dryness instead of the over-the-top humor of the other characters. They have incredibly quick reflexes in conversation, creating a forward motion that pushes the entire production with it.

Rosencrantz and Guildensterns are always outsiders, never quite remembering where they’ve come from or are going, and Fortunato and Kane do a remarkable job capturing their collective confusion, but also their collective loneliness. Stoppard’s play has comedic moments, but its heart lies in two friends that are beginning to realize how insignificant they really are. Kane carries the majority of the dramatic weight between the two, considerably more concerned and disturbed by life’s absurdity, but his fears seem to weigh him down less whenever he engages with Fortunato. And while Fortunato stays primarily light-hearted and optimistic throughout the play, his extended monologue in Act Two has the similar sadness and heaviness of Guildenstern’s musings. Its fascinating how the director has found a way to increase the density of the production based on the when the two actors are in dialogue with one another versus the moments when they singularly explore their fears and insecurities.

 

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The other actors all do commendable work, and those playing Shakespeare’s characters do so with a theatricality that is completely appropriate, yet is hilariously over-the-top compared to the title characters’ subtlety. The scenes pulled from Hamlet are all performed with the actors facing upstage, performing to a drop that has been imaged after an empty auditorium; the trick is maybe a little too on the nose of Halberstam, but is still a clever way to emphasize the life versus art themes of the play. These ideas become prevalent when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern interact with the Tragedians and their flamboyant leader, the Player, impeccably portrayed by Allen Gilmore.

Gilmore has found a way to tap into the chemistry that the two lead actors share, and he matches their rapid fire wit with ease. He directs his actors with an iron fist, and while the players’ scenes are primarily comedic, his argument that audiences come to the theater for gratuitous murder, seduction, and incest reveals an intriguing aspect of art’s function: it is a way to experience the dehumanizing and immoral acts that all people secretly desire. While Gilmore handles the humor with fervor, he really shines when he gets to showcase his character’s obsessive personality. After Rosencrantz and Guildenstern abandon the players before they’ve had the chance to perform, the Player performs a monologue describing the pain and humiliation his actors and he shared. Guildenstern criticizes the melodrama of the speech, but in the hands of an actor like Gilmore the melodrama becomes the foundation for honest despair and real pain, a compliment that can be given to the entire ensemble Halberstam has gathered.

 

Rating: ««««

 

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Review: Goodman Theatre’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll” – triumphantly captivating and celebratory

Goodman Theatre molds Tom Stoppard’s harrowing play into an incredibly human package

Review by Barry Eitel

 

Pictured in Goodman Theatre's production of Rock 'n' Roll by Tom Stoppard, directed by Charles Newell are (l to r) Timothy Edward Kane (Jan) and Mary Beth Fisher (Esme (older)).

If anyone knows about the transitive power of music, it would be the Czechs. In 1989, the oppressive Communist government of Czechoslovakia was peacefully overthrown in the “Velvet Revolution,” termed after the band The Velvet Underground. The subversive yet inspiring properties of rock music played a major role in bringing democracy to the country.

In his newest play, Rock ‘n’ Roll, produced by the Goodman Theatre, Tom Stoppard depicts the events leading up to the Velvet Revolution. The play begins amid Soviet tanks rolling into Prague to switch out the progressive government, ending the reformative “Prague Spring” of 1968. However, the play does far more than document Czech history; winding over twenty-two turbulent years, Stoppard intertwines the lives of characters that span different nations, political systems, generations, and ideologies. The Chicago premier of the play, directed by the inspired Charles Newell, stuffs all of the love, loss, and intense intellectual debate into an incredibly human package. And with the best soundtrack on-stage right now, the Goodman production leaves plenty of room for a little rock and roll along the way.

Pictured in Goodman Theatre's production of Rock 'n' Roll by Tom Stoppard, directed by Charles Newell are (l to r) Gregory Matthew Anderson (Stephen), Mattie Hawkinson (Alice), Thomas J. Cox (Nigel), Susie McMonagle (Candida), Amy J. Carle (Lenka) and Stephen Yoakam (Max).

Set designer John Culbert transformed the massive Albert Stage into a concert venue, complete with scaffolding and speakers so massive they could make every ear in the audience bleed. The colossal scale of the set matches the epic tone of the play, which can move thousands of miles from scene to scene. In order to switch from location to location quickly, furniture on platforms is rolled out from the wings and sometimes huge pieces are dropped from the flies. Christopher Akerlind’s lighting design accentuates Culbert’s set smartly. All of the design melds brilliantly together—the space seems more like a Bonnaroo stage than the Goodman theatre.

Pictured in Goodman Theatre's production of Rock 'n' Roll by Tom Stoppard, directed by Charles Newell is Timothy Edward Kane (Jan). Rock 'n' Roll begins performances on May 2 (Opening Night is May 11) and runs through June 7 in the Goodman's Albert Theatre. Timothy Edward Kane is an expressive, vivacious Jan, the Czech doctor of philosophy/rock’n’roll fanatic that the play follows. Kane’s performance captures all of the forces tugging at Jan’s psyche as he attempts to balance his ideals, his relationships with those around him, and his harsh reality under the suppressive regime. Perhaps most importantly, Kane bursts with Jan’s intense passion for music. As Jan’s mentor in Marxism, Max, Stephen Yoakam is fiery. It is heart-wrenching to watch as he clutches to obsolete ideologies as his English world, including his family, abandons them as the Cold War thaws. Another stand-out performance is Goodman veteran Mary Beth Fisher, who plays Max’s wife Eleanor and, twenty years later, his daughter Esme. She differentiates and contrasts the generational gap clearly, as well as having some of the most emotional intense moments in the production.

Rock-n-Roll7 Newell nails the theatricality of Stoppard’s play, punching up the classic rock world as much as possible. He uses a mysterious piper (a limber Greg Matthew Anderson) to string the story together, having him weave himself among the scaffolding. The “enlightened” Esme confuses the Robert Smith look-a-like for the god Pan. It turns out the ghostly figure might be Pink Floyd’s estranged frontman, Syd Barrett. But the piper maintains a spritely aspect about him, staying eternally young as everyone else ages. This is just one of many examples of how the production captures the imagination instead of sticking inside realistic world. Newell’s daring stylistic choices really pay off, keeping the play exciting while also preserving the human struggle.

Like most Stoppard, the play is highly intellectual and not for everybody, and occasionally the pace slackens during the debates. But even if you don’t understand the Sappho references or Socialist theory, the vibrant relationships linking the characters are still extremely powerful. The captivating language also maintains a tight grip on the audience, even if some of the content requires a masters degree.

This is arguably Stoppard’s finest work, and the Goodman’s production celebrates both the rock spectacle and the inspiring humanity of the story. The audience is left reminded that our world is constantly warping and flowing, like a deep ocean of ideas, cultures, and human connections.

Rating: ««««

Video:

 

View Tom Stoppards Rock n Roll

 

Below: Stark differences between “Prague Spring” and the “Velvet Revolution”

Tanks moving in during "Prague Spring", 1968  Policemen_and_flowers

On the left – Molotov Cocktails thrown during the bloody Prague Spring uprising.  On the right, flowers (given to policemen) are used in the peaceful overthrow of the Czech/Soviet Republic in what is now known as the “Velvet Revolution

Chicago Theater – Best of 2008 (TimeOut Chicago)

Court Theatre's "Caroline or Change", six out of six stars The Hypocrite's "Our Town" "Million Dollar Quartet" at the Apollo Theater Steep Theatre's "Breathing Corpses"

 

TimeOut Chicago‘s Christopher Platt and Kris Vire present their top 10 Chicago theater picks of 2008:

 

1. Caroline or Change  (Court Theatre)
by Tony Kushner
Standouts: Charles Newell (director), Doug Peck (musical director); actors: Kate Fry, E.Faye Butler
     
2. Our Town  (The Hypocrites)
by Thornton Wilder
Standouts: David Cromer (director), actors: Jennifer Grace (as Emily), David Cromer (narrator)
 
     
3. Speech and Debate  (American Theatre Company)
by Stephen Karam
Standouts: PJ Paparelli (ATC Artistic Director); performances: Patrick Andrews, Jared McGuire, Sadieh Rifai
 
     
4. Uncle Vanya (TUTA TheatreChicago)
by Anton Chekhov
Standouts: Zeljko Djukic (director), Yasen Peyankov  and Peter Christensen (translators), Martin Andrew (designer)
 
     
5. Miss Julie  (The Hypocrites)
by August Strindberg
Standouts: Sean Graney (director); performances: Stacy Stoltz, Greg Hardigan
 
     
6. Titus Andronicus  (Court Theatre)
by William Shakespeare
Standouts: Charles Newell (director), ; performances: Timothy Edward Kane, Hollis Resnik
 
     
7. Fake Lake  (The Neo-Futurists)
by Sharon Greene
Standouts: Halena Kays (director), Welles Park pool, Mikhail Fiksel
 
     
8. Breathing Corpses  (Steep Theatre)
by Laura Wade
Standouts: Robin Witt (director), Marcus Stephen (set designer)
 
     
9. Million Dollar Quartet  (Goodman, Apollo Theater)
Standouts: Levi Kreis (as Jerry Lee Lewis), Lance Guest (Johnny Cash), Rob Lyon (Carl Perkins), Eddie Clendening (Elvis Presley)
 
     
10. As Told by the Vivian Girls  (Dog & Pony Theatre)
by Devin de Mayo
Standouts: Devin de Mayo (director)
 

 

To see the TimeOut Chicago description of each of these shows, click here.