SORCERY AND SWORDS Urgo and Carney in The Illusion.
Politicians want to talk about politics, fishmongers about fish, and it's no wonder the playwrights want to talk about theater. The only problem is they sometimes want to talk about it in their works, and the result can be a long-winded philosophical allegory like Tony Kushner's The Illusion. That description isn't remedied by the play getting a skillful staging by Providence College Theatre (through February 10), directed by senior Patrick Mark Saunders and John Garrity.
You might think that the original playwright should share the blame, since this was adapted from Pierre Corneille's 17th-century L'illusion Comique, which examined theatrical genres from pastoral to comedy to tragicomedy. But the original version was, well, comic. This 1988 repurposing, produced a couple of years before the first part of Kushner's revolutionary Angels In America, attempts to keep its lessons lightly sardonic, but that struggles against its didactic thrust.
We observe a stern father, Pridamant (Jeff DeSisto), who regrets having driven away his only son long ago — he wasn't just miffed by the troublesome, disobedient lad, he literally wanted to kill him. Now closer to death himself, he wants to tell his son that he loves him. Being a cranky, complex codger, he also adds, "I want to make him sick with guilt." (Under the usual college theater handicap, the father is played by a young man, despite several references to his declining years. It's disconcerting, but less so than having DeSisto's hair all talcum-powdered.)
Pridamant ventures to a magician, here changed in gender to Alcandra (Grace Curley), to learn what has happened to the young man (Sean Carney). She has the help of her trusty Amanuensis (Ben Williams), whose tongue has been removed to keep him from revealing her secrets. The sorceress conjures up three scenarios for the father to watch, the son undergoing in each a different set of trials and romantic tribulations — and personality disorders, from meek to arrogant. His love interest in each (Aubrey Dion) is given sympathy and support by her maid and confidante (Marisa Urgo); he is given successive hard times, once nearly run through with a sword by a rival for her affections (George Killian).
No names? Actually, the characters galloping through these paces have a different name in each of their three scenes, but let me spare the confusion. In Corneille's version, the changes in the three parts are ludicrous, and thereby existentially absurd, but that advantage largely evaporates in this incarnation. The Comedy of Errors has been turned into a half-baked Hamlet. We get a fast talking madman, Matamore, played with delightful enthusiasm and a ludicrous French accent by Kevin Lynch, who somehow manages to keep his tongue knot-free. We never learn the actual name of Pridamant's son, which is in keeping with the theme of not being certain what is real.
Sara Osanna's simple, stylized scenic design (a leafy sapling is dropped down sideways to indicate an outdoor scene) keeps our attention focused where it should be. The costume design by Mike Floyd keeps scenes light even when the text isn't doing so — I loved the amusing costume of the lovely love interest, decorated with a trio of gradually larger hearts rising like erotic thought bubbles. And once again kudos to local resource Norman Beauregard for coaching a snappy sword fight scene (no hesitations — yay!).
To be fair to the play, despite my critique, The Illusion has been widely presented to appreciative audiences and reviews. See it and decide for yourself. In the world of theater, sometimes the most illusory aspect can be the adamant opinions of critics.