This season’s Signature Theatre Company series has been devoted to Tony Kushner, celebrated with both parts of “Angels in America” and the debut of “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures.” He is the American poet laureate of language that can make us sit up in wonder, as he most often does, and now with this revival of the 1636 farce “L’Illusion Comique” by Pierre Corneille. It premiered in 1988 at the New York Theatre Workshop with Kushner’s reinterpretation and is a joyous departure of magical Romanesque comedy.
It’s a chuckle, smile-a-minute journey in and through love, delivered with all the glitz theatrical nuance can muster. When the Pridamant of Avignon, a dry-witted David Marguilies, a lawyer, decides to search for his wayward son, who left 15 years prior, he seeks out the help of Alcandre, an all-knowing sorcerer (Lois Smith) who lives inside a cave. She is aided by her mute, strangely behaving servant Amanuensis (Henry Stram) who also plays the role of Geronte, hardened father of the heroine in Act II, and the music of Nico Muhly on the sunken enchanted grand piano.
The play is presented in three vignettes and for some reason the names of the characters, although they are the same ones, change. We follow the young, good looking Calisto (Finn Wittrock), as he morphs from love-infused commoner, enthralled with the noble-born Melibea (Amanda Quaid), who is more defining in her dazzling soliloquy as Hippolyta, into various characterizations; another named Clindor in love with Isabelle, and finally as Theogenes, now married to Hippolyta. All the while, his father looks on in wonder, commenting pragmatically on the goings-on, as Alcandre unveils her wizardry.
The effervescent maid Elicia/Lyse/Clarina (Merritt Wever), is in cohoots with her mistress Melibea, albeit secretly in love with Calisto. Her everyday girl talk and delivery make her performance sensational. Melibea is actually promised to another suitor, the arrogant Pleribo (Sean Dugan) who eventually is seen as Adraste and Prince Florilame. The scene stealer, however, is Peter Bartlett (A Free Man of Color) who continues his buffoonery here as Matamore, a fool in self-delusion. He is child-like and pitifully moving seeing the world through rose-colored glasses.
It’s all an intricately woven tale of illusions that seek to put us in touch with ourselves, what we create in our minds vs. what is actually real. The deft hand of director Michael Mayer (American Idiot, Spring Awakening) adds the supreme magical touch that imbues this production. The clever scenic design by Christine Jones is sparsely imaginative using shelves and bottles, globes and lanterns; a circle of which become a prison cell. Susan Hilferty’s baroque costuming completes the picture, along with the lighting of Kevin Adams. There is also an exciting sword fight to the credit of Rick Sordelet.
This beautifully staged production continues thru July 17th at the Signature Theatre on West 42nd Street, NYC.