'The Illusion' at SOU

Playwright Tony Kushner's 1988 adaptation of "L'Illusion Comique" is filled with verbal artistry
Aria Shahghasemi, left, and Samuel L. Wick are featured in Tony Kushner's "The Illusion" at Southern Oregon University.Photo courtesy of Ezra Sevrin

With the help of a magician's elaborate sorcery, a distressed father seeks the son he banished long ago. In a hidden cave, scenes from the son's adventurous life are revealed. But are they truth or illusion?

"The Illusion," Tony Kushner's confection of romance and swashbuckling adventure, opens Thursday, May 23, in the Center Square Theatre at Southern Oregon University.

If you go

What: Tony Kushner's "The Illusion"

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, May 23-25 and May 30 through June 1, and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, June 1-2

Where: Center Square Theatre on the Southern Oregon University campus, 1250 Siskiyou Blvd., Ashland.

Tickets: $21, $18 for seniors and $6 for students

Call: 541-552-6348

Filled with verbal artistry, "The Illusion" is Kushner's loose adaptation of a 17th-century literary tour de force, "L'Illusion Comique" by playwright Pierre Corneille. Using the device of a several plays within a play, Corneille presented the formal styles of classical theater — pastoral, romance, tragedy, comedy and farce — changing his verbal and staging style for each scene.

Kushner, who wrote "The Illusion" in 1988 while he was working on his Pulitzer Prize-winning drama "Angels in America," took Corneille's format and bent it into elaborate modern wordplay.

Performances are set for 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, May 23-25 and May 30 through June 1, and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, June 1-2, in the Center Square Theatre. Tickets cost $21, $18 for seniors and $6 for students. Tickets are available at www.sou.edu/performingarts or by calling 541-552-6348.

Directed by SOU professor emeritus Dennis Smith, this production has all the heroics and swordplay of Kushner's conception.

"The play focuses on magic, theatricality, reality and truth," Smith says. "We don't always prefer the one we should and sometimes prefer the illusion because we couldn't live with the truth. The play also is about the search for redemption and forgiveness and a commitment to try to find reconciliation in a relationship — seeking to forgive and be forgiven. At its heart are multiple, complex love stories.

"Tony Kushner is great at classical language. He creates flights of words that are true to the spirit of Corneille. It's an opportunity to immerse students in classical play forms done by a contemporary playwright. It's a wonderful amalgam."

The play is filled with conjured visions, unlikely transformations and unexpected twists of time and fate. Sometimes the hero becomes the villain, sometimes the damsel in distress is portrayed as an unfaithful wife. Each transition brings a change of costume and style in speaking and movement. Each adventure is related, but not a continuation of the one preceding it.

Though the role of the magician, Alcandre, was written for a male, a 2009 off-Broadway production cast a woman in the role, as did the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 1993. Smith has done the same, casting Grace Wolcott as the magician.

"There are not many roles for women in classical theater," Smith says. "Casting Wolcott as Alcandre is a wonderful opportunity for gender-bending."

Tyler Kubat plays Pridamant, the father, and Aria Shahghasemi plays the errant son.

"We've set the play in the 18th century to take advantage of lush Baroque-style costuming," Smith says. "The scenery is an elaborate fantasy. Our inspiration was 'steam punk,' with its references to the fanciful 19th-century steam machine images of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. Within the world of the magician's cave, time is not subject to the rules."

Set design is by Sean O'Skea, costumes are by Brandon McCowan, lighting is by Steven Coney and sound is by Neil Peterson.

Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at rbkent@mind.net.

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