Friday, October 23, 2009

review of *The Illusion*

(seen Oct. 18 at Cowles Auditorium; remaining performances on Oct. 23-24)

[ Pierre Corneille, 1606-84 ]

The final twist in Tony Kushner’s adaptation of Corneille’s The Illusion (at Whitworth, Oct. 23-24) is so ingenious, so unexpected, that it drew gasps and delighted laughter.

A lawyer seeks out a magician for helping in conjuring visions of the lawyer’s long-lost son -- and we’re treated to four episodes from the son’s life. Except that the details are all off, distorted. The father’s confused: Why are the situations and characters in my son’s life sort of what I expected, but also terribly inconsistent?

In a play that’s all about acting and metatheatrical in the extreme, the Whitworth student actors are all engaging. (Sorry, away from my program just now.) Diana Trotter directs so as to keep the sometimes exaggerated rhetoric of Corneille’s original in check, leavening it with jokes and undercutting the sentimentality. Peter Hardie designed the cave-interior set, complete with unexpected features that  certainly help in the special effects department.

For those who love acting and meditating about artifice -- and who like comedy mixed with bits of seriousness -- I’d recommend seeing this show. It appeals to theater types, and it’s not frequently done.

But there are two problem areas. First,.the four episodes ought to be been trimmed: Corneille tends to set up a situation and then elaborate it at length. We get that the idealistic young lover is head-over-heels for the lovely ingenue, and we get that later on, he must be frustrated when reduced to acting as a servant and submitted to men who are clearly his inferior. There’s a through-line, but it’s vague and wispy -- and yet the through-line is the payoff. Bobo’s mind wandered a bit: Now the son has learned to be contrite about his dalliances, and the father and the wizard are still standing around as spectators, and the emotional point of each scene, taken separately, tends to become clear -- and then yammered about at length.

Again, the Whitworth actors were spritely, energetic, engaging. But the scenes didn’t contain enough reversals. 

The second problem area is Leonard Oakland’s performance as Pridamant, the aged lawyer-father. (Full disclosure: It pains me to say this, because Leonard and I taught in the same department from 1990-97, and because he is a wonderfully warm person, gifted teacher, valued colleague and just a swell bon vivant.) But much of his performance is wooden and unconvincing. (There are moments, especially when Pridamant gets to express sarcasm or disappointment in his son’s adventures.) But Leonard is also called upon to express anguish and fear. A lot of his line readings were whiny, hesitant, not fully felt.

None of this should be taken as intending to dissuade playgoers from choosing this  production. And it was especially touching to hear that Trotter wanted Oakland in her cast because, after 43 years of teaching at Whitworth, he has justly earned at paternal image around campus. I mean, the students who get to act with Leonard Oakland are enjoying a real privilege.

But being learned, compassionate, twitchy, wise, eccentric, passionate -- all of which Leonard is -- does not necessarily equate with acting ability. The same lecture-hall talent for being presentational (in delivering a lecture) does not enrich an actor’s interiority. Leonard’s gangly, glasses-on-the-forehead exuberance behind the lectern detracts here from his depiction of Pridamant, who is emotionally distant, disoriented, exasperated, anguished.

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