The Theater at Monmouth rounds out its “Vive La France”-themed season with Tony Kushner’s “The Illusion,” playfully toying with the baroque ideology that life is a stage.
The play is freely adapted from Pierre Corneille’s 17th-century “L’Illusion Comique.” Set in the south of France in 1634, it tells the tale of Pridamant (Mark Cartier), a hard-hearted lawyer whose waning health prompts him to seek the services of a magician, Alcandre (Janis Stevens), to locate his long-estranged son (Rob Glauz).
From within the confines of her cave, Alcandre draws back the veil of life to reveal three phantasms. Each features the dashing son, a highborn maiden (Erica Murphy), a scheming maid (Blythe Coons) and an arrogant rival suitor (Jake Loewenthal), but their names, situations and personalities mysteriously change. Pridamant’s love for his son grows with each new scene as he witnesses acts of passion, bravery and mortality that he hadn’t thought his son was capable of performing.
Theater at Monmouth offers a scaled-back production that uses minimal props and special effects, relying on its deft cast to craft “the illusion” referenced in the play’s title. Stevens, as Alcandre, lends an aura of wisdom and mystique, setting the stage, with Christopher Holt adding an eerie touch as her assistant, Amanuensis.
Glauz, Murphy, Coons and Loewenthal successfully adopt their characters’ personality changes while maintaining a semblance of continuity between the three scenes that allows for Pridamant’s transformation. Cartier captures the character’s paternal change, his icy heart seeming to melt with the passage of time.
As the original French title indicates, “The Illusion” is interwoven with comedy, and Theater at Monmouth’s cast delivers the tongue-in-cheek humor with tragicomedy absurdity. James Hoban, in particular, shines as the self-deluding Matamore, garnering laughter with his character’s outlandish behavior and nonsensical insults.
Kushner has a knack for dexterous verbiage, and the cast handles the playwright’s verbal acrobatics with nimble tongues, spewing out such fun lines as “What are these gardeners to the monstrous horticulturists that I have slain,” interspersed with poetic monologues.
Holt delivers an impressive diatribe when his character slips between the veil of reality and illusion into the role of Isabelle’s disapproving father. His vehement delivery contrasts sharply with his normally mute character.
“The Illusion” doesn’t pack the same socio-political punch as Kushner’s original works, such as “Angels in America,” but it’s filled with subtle commentary about the roles we play and how perception shapes our emotions. As Alcandre points out in her closing monologue, “What in this world is not evanescent? What in this world is real and not seeming?”
The play also throws in a couple choice digs about theater and reminds us that artists can’t live on their art alone.
The Theater at Monmouth delivers the commentary with a wink, offering up a well-executed production that’s entertaining food for thought.
WHERE: 796 Main St., Monmouth
DATE REVIEWED: July 29; runs through Aug. 19
TICKETS: $32 ($28 senior, $20 student)
CONTACT: 933-9999; theateratmonmouth.org