This would seem to be the question at the heart of The Illusion, Tony Kushner's freely adapted version of Pierre Corneille's L'Illusion Comique, currently being produced by the Namaste Theater Company at the Actors' Gang Theater. The play, which follows the outline and, as far as I can tell, the intent of Corneille's work, concerns a man named Pridamant whose too-wild son fled home as a child, leaving his father tortured with worries about the errant boy's fate. Nearing the end of his life, Pridamant enlists the help of a magician, Alcandre, to find out what became of his son. Find out he does, except that in the shape-shifting universe Alcandre allows him to peer in on, in which characters change names as often as clothes and no consequence is immutable, the information appears less than utterly reliable. But what is reliable? How do we know that we, or anyone else for that matter, exist in the forms we believe we do?
That may be The Illusion's most obvious question, but were that its most important observation, it would be worth only a quarter of its two-hour running time, which is about as long as the average theatergoer would entertain such a doubt. Taoist reflections aside, the fact is most of us are sure enough of our existence to be content. We are not really confused about what is real and what is not, and to push the question of our self-perception too far is to lose the attention of the most grounded members of any audience.
But as much as we may not believe illusion, we still love to suspend disbelief: Illusion serves us well. We need it. We need it to imagine what it might feel like to kill, or to flee for our lives; we need it to experience emotions that are -- if we're lucky enough to live in relative physical safety -- beyond us in the living, waking world. And what The Illusion questions is not how much we believe it, but how much we want to: how easy it is to feel empathy and vicarious grief for the abstract and the fictive, and to behave with callous indifference toward the concrete and the real.
On Kris Sandheinrich's deceptively simple but entrancing set -- a cave emanating fiery light; stalactites dangling from its ceiling -- Namaste's company, under the direction of Michael Uppendahl, presents this treatise with an appropriately grandiose comic flourish, in a spirit playful enough to suggest that comedy is all there is to it. Every actor's delivery is aggressively presentational, in the tradition of commedia dell'arte or Brecht, but amped to the highest hash mark on the dial. The night I saw the production, the handful of children in the audience seemed dazzled by gestures broad enough for a silent movie and costumes (by Kharen Zeunert) so whimsical the production could be a circus. But the entire show conveys a certain unmistakable doom as well, and as Pridamant looks on helplessly as his son falls in love, fights off rivals and faces death, the story catches you up in spite of (or because of?) all the deliberate posturing. Despite your better judgment, you start to care about where it goes and how it will end.
It's a neat trick, imbuing such a purposefully artificial staging with complex feeling, fooling the audience into enjoying a frothy comedy while it gets instead a heavy meditation on the fallacy of love, an emotion Corneille is notorious for debunking ("Reason and love are sworn enemies" is among his more well-know maxims). Much of the credit for the production's success must go to the actors themselves: From Brice Beckham's portrayal of the Amanuensis, a peripheral servant with an edge of desperation, to Jason Hebel as the son, Calisto (alternately known as Clindor or Theogenes), whose overweening declarations of love for the beautiful Melibea (a.k.a. Isabelle and Hippolyta, all portrayed by Holly Gleason) somehow morph from the initial joke into something urgent, this gifted and capable cast manages to maintain the pace of Uppendahl's humor-driven staging without depriving us of the opportunity to suspect that something more thoughtful lurks beneath. As Alcandre, Gary Kelley is a wise and charismatic demiurge, Pridamant (Dean Robinson) his perfect integrity-deficient foil. But the real hero is Kushner: The Illusion is a small wonder, full of metaphor and philosophy, all of it dedicated to interrogating illusion on every level, from the deception of a lover to a gross misreading of the world.
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RE-IMAGINING L'ILLUSION COMIQUE WASN'T TONY Kushner's idea. Brian Kulick, a director who has professed an enthusiasm for resuscitating forgotten dramatic works, brought the play to Kushner's attention, and directed its first production at the New York Theater Workshop in 1988. (When The Illusion came to Los Angeles Theater Center in 1990, thenLos Angeles Times critic Sylvie Drake praised it as "lingually lucid and lean.") Since then, it has been staged all over the country to unusually consistent critical acclaim: Judging from the reviews of the past 10 years, Kushner has written a foolproof play. Many of the productions, however, have been received as mere comic fluff; evidently, the play doesn't have to work on every level to work on one, and in some cases -- at certain points in history, perhaps -- one level is enough.
For residents of Los Angeles in the spring of 1999, however, a time especially heavy on make-believe as a survival mechanism, The Illusion strikes a particularly sensitive nerve. Kushner may not have chosen on his own to adapt Corneille, but it's still the ideal canvas for a playwright who later made himself famous writing an epic Broadway hit about the age of AIDS, and it's only a few minutes into Namaste's production when you realize that beneath its broadly comic surface lies an indictment of the human condition dark enough to make you weep. Kushner laments not who we choose to be, but what we can't help being -- selfish, fickle and weak-willed, willing to act on behalf of others only when it doesn't cost us, capable of more love and loyalty for a fantasy than for our flesh-and-blood kin. Love is suspect in all its forms: between parents and children, between sweethearts. "Anything can be called love/Any ugly emotion," says the father of Melibea/Isabelle/ Hippolyta to his lovelorn daughter, echoing an earlier comment Pridamant made as he watched his moony-eyed son. (Never mind that, in the scene before, Pridamant claimed he was anxious above all to declare his own love to his son.)
But all is not lost, of course, and no comic vehicle would be complete without redemption. The Illusion ends with the suggestion that fiction may be our road to salvation after all, that it may be our only way to practice compassion. And if fiction can squeeze a tear from the otherwise hardhearted, there's a possibility that the indifferent might be moved by real life as well. ("What is now proved," wrote William Blake, "was once only imagined.") And love, however fleeting, at least offers a flicker of inspiration to our otherwise bewildering lives. "The art of illusion is the art of love," Alcandre declares as the light fades. "And the art of love is the blood-red heart of the world." An imperfect world, for sure, but the only one we know for certain we inhabit.
THE ILLUSION | By PIERRE CORNEILLE | Adapted by TONY KUSHNER
Presented by NAMASTE THEATER COMPANY at ACTORS' GANG THEATER,
6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood | Through June 5