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THEATER | Stage Review

Light and Lively 'Illusion'

Tony Kushner's well-told work at the Actors' Gang Theater is deadpan, classic and quite funny.

May 13, 1999|F. KATHLEEN FOLEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Tony Kushner's adaptation of Pierre Corneille's "The Illusion" at the Actors' Gang is a cotton candy concoction spun to a delicious turn by the Namaste Theatre Company, under the direction of Michael Uppendahl.

This enterprise could well have posed a sticky problem to a less accomplished group. An attenuated fairy tale that plays somewhat self-consciously with the familiar "what is reality?" question, Kushner's loose adaptation of the 1636 original preserves much verve but little elegance of language. Yet Uppendahl and his performers keep the ephemera properly light and cheeky, hovering breathlessly between classicism and burlesque.

The action commences--where else?--in a mist-filled sorcerer's cavern (Kris Sandheinrich's splendidly spooky set, lit with gloomy effectiveness by David F. Hahn). There, the wealthy but ailing Pridamant of Avignon (Dean Robinson) petitions the powerful magician Alcandre (Gary Kelley) to learn the fate of his long-lost son, Calisto (Jason Hebel), driven from home years ago by his disapproving papa, who now repents his harshness.

With his assistant (Brice Beckham), Alcandre conjures images of Calisto's fortunes in a series of three unrelated visions. Each time, the names and personae of the characters involved are different--but the basic story elements remain the same. In all three incarnations, Calisto--who is also called Clindor or Theogenes--is an errant and lustful knave who woos a beautiful princess/noblewoman (Holly Gleason) far above his station. Their respective romances are abetted or hindered by the fair maiden's servant (Anne Goldhorn), a trickster of the commedia mold who also shares a powerful attraction for Calisto. And, of course, there's a vengeful archrival (Alex Fox), who metamorphoses from sophomoric ineffectualness in the first scenario to devastating ruthlessness in the last.

Unchanging throughout is the requisite clown, Matamore (Hugh Adair), an engaging megalomaniac whose lunatic attempts to romance Gleason's reluctant noblewoman move the action forward like a Tex Avery cartoon. The hilarious Adair is a moon-faced dynamo. Hebel also deserves praise for his precariously balanced portrayal, a comically updated antihero whose youthful romanticism cloaks an obdurate--and very funny--venality.

Uppendahl and crew unabashedly borrow comic archetypes from popular culture: Echoes of Monty Python, Peter Sellers, even Robin Williams resound at every turn. It's all very silly and impressively deadpan: There's not a hint of fatal cuteness in this insubstantial but well-told tale.

BE THERE

"The Illusion," Actors' Gang Theater, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Thursdays through Sundays, 8 p.m. Ends June 5. $15. (323) 655-8587. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes.

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