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‘The Illusion’ is odd, rambling story

by John Angell Grant Daily Planet Theater Critic
Tuesday September 12, 2000

Tony Kushner's epic Pulitzer and Tony Award winner “Angels in America” is the most important American stage work of the past 25 years. 

The Los Angeles world premiere of that play was co-directed in 1992 by Tony Taccone, now artistic director of the Berkeley Repertory Theater. 

Since then, the theater has hosted premieres of two other Kushner works – “Slavs!,” a wonderful piece about the collapse of Eastern European communist bureaucracy constructed out of outtakes from “Angels in America,” and “Hydriotaphia,” an odd bedroom meditation about dying 17th century English physician Sir Thomas Browne. 

For those who might be interested in catching up with yet more of Kushner's less well-known work, foolsFURY theater company opened a physical, dance-influenced production this past weekend of Kushner's 1990 play “The Illusion,” a very loose adaptation of Pierre Corneille's 17th century French tragic-comedy “L'Illusion Comique.” 

foolsFURY is staging “The Illusion” in San Francisco at the Gurdjieff Hall, a small converted movie theater a few doors off Potrero Hill's charming 18th Street neighborhood commercial strip. 

“The Illusion” is an odd and rambling story about an elderly father (Keith Davis) who has been estranged from his son (Alexander Lewis) for years.  

To address the needs of his heart, the father seeks out a magician (Neil Flint Worden) in a cave who is able to invoke visions that reveal the son’s life story. In foolsFURY's bare stage and dance-based production, the father eagerly and painfully sits and watches these stories, like a play within a play. 

Told in three chapters, with the characters oddly renamed in each chapter, the son’s life is revealed. For much of the play, he pursues a love triangle with two women, one rich (Heather Mathieson) and one poor (Kaliopi Eleni), and fends off male rivals (James Cutts and Stephen Jacob).  

Betrayal ensues, and a murder. After marriage, there is infidelity, and another murder. 

But director Ben Yalom's production of “The Illusion” is a tough staging to appreciate. 

In many ways, it feels like a mythical story about generic types, rather than a story about flesh and blood individuals. It is harder to care about generic types, than it is to care about distinct individuals. 

In the foolsFURY production, the airy spirits skittering here and there in the dark magician’s cave reiterate what is already one of the most accessible parts of the script. This production might have been made more interesting by challenging the text in some way to reveal its less obvious underlying meanings. 

Kushner’s script itself is a declamatory one that does its share of preaching. 

As the estranged father watches conjured images of his long-lost son pass through complex romantic struggles with women, “The Illusion” seems at times to be a theatrical deconstruction of the Oedipal conflict. At other times, the play seems to be about the fragility and arbitrariness of human karma. 

Then, unexpectedly, at the play’s end there is a twist that shifts the meaning of everything that has come before.  

But is it enough, and after waiting two hours, is it worth the wait? On reflection, it seems like a lot of work for what proves to be kind of a small story. 

The acting in foolsFURY’s production is generally good. Passing along an interesting arc, Keith Davis’ angry, but ultimately vulnerable father, is one of the evening's best performances. 

Alexander Lewis is a multi-faceted prodigal son. Steven Jacob has graceful, hypnotic movements as a military conqueror and rival to Lewis in romance. 

Heather Mathieson is a coy, then committed love interest. Kaliopi Eleni sews seeds of romantic dissent as Mathieson's handmaiden. James Cutts is stoic and tough as a determined rival for Mathieson's love. 

Neil Flint Worden’s severe, demanding and judgmental magician proves surprisingly ironical at the play’s end, but is an unsatisfying monotone for much of the evening’s performance. 

In Michael Burg’s set design, the audience enters the theater through the back of the set and across the stage to take seats at the far end of the small, high-ceilinged space. It is like sitting at the back of a cave and looking out its opening. 

At his best, such as with “Angels in America” or “Slavs!,” Kushner is one of the world's best playwrights. 

But he has a pedantic and lecturing side in which he likes his characters to explain to the audience how things are. “The Illusion” ends up being a self-conscious and rather sententious parable about theater. 

“The Illusion,” presented by foolsFURY at Gurdjieff Hall, 312 Connecticut (at 18th Street), San Francisco, through Oct. 1. For tickets and information, call (415) 248-1918, or visit the website (