The Albert Lupin Memorial Theatre is an ideal location for staging The Illusion, a tragicomedy written in 1994 by Tony Kushner (Angels in America), based on a 17th-century play by Pierre Corneille, the influential French dramatist. The black box theater provides the blank slate for imagining three stages of love experienced by a handsome son disowned by his nobleman father. Corneille famously wrote morality tales, and Kushner's The Illusion packs a punch.
The final play of the New Orleans Shakespeare Festival at Tulane's 23rd season is at once classical and contemporary in its depiction of the complexities of love. Its dialogue is poetic yet modern, since Kushner didn't translate from the original French. Lush costuming and magical special effects infuse the production with a mystical quality.
The theater is shrouded in darkness as Pridamant (Silas Cooper), a troubled father, arrives at the cave of the magician Alcandre (Cristine McMurdo-Wallis) to beg for help finding the son he cast out 15 years earlier. The sorceress emerges from the blackness and conjures scenes in which the son appears in three romantic episodes, but she prevents Pridamant from "crossing over" to interact.
McMurdo-Wallis commands the stage like a seasoned ringmaster, controlling what Pridamant sees through her revelations. Dressed in a gilded gown, she alone is able to distinguish between reality and illusion.
Michael A. Newcomer, playing the prodigal son, faces the difficult task of portraying three distinctly different personalities and romantic situations. In his first incarnation, Calisto's "life is still fresh to him — full of wonder," Alcandre says. As his identities and love interests change over time, he degenerates from a charmingly naive paramour to a philandering opportunist. His transformation is manifested in a hardening visage and aggressive body language. Later the son seems addicted to conquests, dallying with women's affections, boldly stating: "I've spent my life in love. And love is all I am; if I cease to love, I cease to be."
His lover in these sequences is aptly played by Devyn Tyler, who appeared in New Orleans Shakespeare's production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Ele- gant and eloquent, Tyler easily personifies a gentlewoman as well as an object of desire. By turns, she is rejecting, flirtatious, amorous and jealous in reaction to her lover's machinations.
There also are fine performances by John Bostic as the egotistical Matamore, Graham Burk as the less charismatic suitor, and Lyndsay Kimball, the lady's maid, who also is ensnared by Calisto's charms. Kimball seizes her minor role and maximizes her effect, influencing the other characters' actions through cunning and coquetry. Chivas Michael is marvelous as the chastising father, Geronte, who is shamed by his daughter for choosing infatuation over honor.
"Love, love, what does love mean? Nothing. Anything can be called love, any ugly emotion. ... That catastrophe. Love," he says.
While the script could be more exciting and the work has a somewhat ambiguous ending, the production features excellent performances and much food for thought concerning the enduring nature of love.