I was out of town for the opening weekend of “The Illusion” at Fresno City College, but I made it back to catch last night’s performance. This beautiful, boisterous and sometimes baffling production — a smooth blend of the contemporary with the 17th Century — is well worth a look during the last two days of its run. (There are only three performances left: 7:30 p.m. today, and 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday.) [tickets]
Drawing on the powerhouse design strengths of Fresno City College, the play offers a visually sumptuous rendition of playwright Tony Kushner’s adaptation of classic playwright’s Pierre Corneille’s “L’Illusion Comique.” We’re transported to the mysterious cave of a sorcerer (a standout Keshawn Keene), attended by a strange assistant (the multifaceted Ben McNamara), who agrees to give an uptight, bourgeoise lawyer named Pridamant (a strong Luis Ramentas) a magical glimpse of what his long-lost, estranged son has been up to the past 15 years.
What unfolds is a series of three separate vignettes in which we catch a glimpse of the son (an appealing Jono Cota) flitting through all sorts of romantic intrigue with what seems a stock set of archetypal characters: a reticent maiden (Bridget Manders), her sassy maid (Lena Auglian) and two blustery rivals (an amusing Josh Hansen and David Manning). As the vignettes shift, the names of the characters change, but a common storyline emerges. The lawyer father protests at first at the haziness of the narrative — he could be a stand-in for the audience — but it soon becomes clear that the whole point of the exercise is to provide an ambivalent dose of reality.
Bee photo / Craig Kohlruss
I loved the first act of the play.Christopher R. Boltz’s lighting superbly sets the mood — the opening is a stunner as the cave throbs with flashes of various hues, setting a mystical scene — and his impeccable set, on which those lights seem to dance, offers a heft and solidity that serves as a counterbalance to the airy nature of the prose. Jeff Barrett’s sound design is integral to the effect. Debbi Shapazian’s ravishing period costumes feel both luxurious and yet, well, theatrical. And Janine Christl’s smart and adept direction steers us time and again back to Kushner’s wonderful wordplay. Most notably, she draws out fine performances from the women in the play, Manders as the maiden and Auglian as the maid, who are especially adept at bouncing between crisp classicism and effortless modernity.
I found it harder in the second act to regain the thrill of the first. The premise loses a little of its charm. And the play’s major twist likewise veers in a direction that saps some of the magic. But there’s a big serving of food for thought here. The line between heartfelt emotion and artifice — the theatricality of daily life — isn’t as thick and imposing as we’d always like to think. And keep in mind the play’s title. What is “real” in “The Illusion” and what is simply the wisps of imagination? In this fine City College production, we’re left dancing all the way out the doors of the theater.