The Illusion
Sharon Rietkerk, Michael Polak, and Paul Turbiak in "The Illusion." Photo by Aaron Rumley.

The Illusion

Tony Kushner adapts a 17th-century work.

Written by Tony Kushner
Directed by David Ellenstein
North Coast Repertory Theatre, San Diego
February 22 – March 19, 2017

Misplaced pride leads a man to cast out his only son. Fifteen years later, aching regret leads to a desperate quest to discover what became of the boy. What the father finds – or thinks he finds – are at the heart of “The Illusion” at the North Coast Repertory Theatre.

The time is a swashbuckling era in southern France. Pridamant (John Herzog) has journeyed far seeking answers from a cave-dwelling sorceress named Alcandre (Kandis Chappell). But first the rough-hewn cave conjures magic of its own when a walking staff glimpsed resting against a rock wall one moment is seen resting in the hands of The Amanuensis (John Greenleaf) the next, as the stoic servant suddenly materializes center stage. Whoa! Clearly, there is more here than meets the eye.

Alcandre gets down to business by summoning a series of scenes viewed through a mysterious portal in a wall. High marks for set designer Marty Burnett, light designer Matt Novotny, and sound designer Andrea Gutierrez whose impressive work makes the most of the stage and every opportunity to trick and tantalize the audience’s imagination.

What Pridamant sees is at first delightful and then increasingly alarming as his son (played by Michael Polak) is shown in love, in jeopardy, and in extreme danger. Inexplicably, the young man goes by different names in each vignette. Moniker shifting also afflicts love interests (Sharon Rietkerk and Christina L. Flynn) and a rival (Paul Turbiak). The dandy Matamore (Andrew Abelson) is the only character seemingly capable of holding on to the same name throughout the story. Don’t despair. Things all settle out in the end after a didn’t-see-that-coming secret is revealed.

Pulitzer prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner (“Angels in America”) wrote “The Illusion” by adapting a 17th century work and infusing it with language that is poetic, dramatic and, when you least expect it, conversational. Such as when Alcandre admonishes Pridamant not to leave before settling the bill he owes her.

Opulent costumes by Abby Caywood of velvet, lace, and ostrich feathers both enhance the actors’ appearance and the story narrative as stains on Alcandre’s voluminous skirt convey the wicking of moisture from the cave floor. One could positively get lost in the billowing slit sleeves of Matamore’s frock coat. Hair and wig designer Peter Herman provides the 17th century worthy tresses, and more plays (of every stripe) would benefit from the talents of fight director Michael Polak.

Two decades ago, director David Ellenstein acted in a production “The Illusion.” His experiences are put to excellent use in bringing out the best in this worthy cast.

By Lynne Friedmann

San Diego,
Lynne Friedmann, based in San Diego, is an award-winning, freelance writer of news, feature articles, and blogs on science, travel, and the arts. Her decades-long passion for theater was sparked as a teen when the Inner City Cultural Center commandeered classroom curricula by bringing classic plays to urban high schools in Los Angeles.