Flying Sorcerer

Before there was Tony Kushner's Pulitzer Prize-winning Angels in America, there was the playwright's adaptation of Pierre Corneille's L'Illusion Comique, written by the French lawyer and dramatist in 1635. Like Kushner, Corneille is better known for a later drama: His 1637 neoclassic tragedy Le Cid enjoyed enormous critical success. Today, Corneille's work is so rarely staged that it's a treat to see any of his plays, especially when they're given the opulent treatment that Arizona Theatre Company has afforded this production.

Although the playbill describes the play as "freely adapted," both stories are essentially the same: A barrister (James J. Lawless) enlists the aid of a magician in finding his cast-off son (David Ellenstein). The sorcerer shows the old man scenes from his son's life in which the boy's name and identity change, while his pursuit of a woman already spoken for is a constant. The names of the other people in the son's life are also transient, and their manner of speech and hair color shift from scene to scene as well. Those visions and the old man's response to them are the heart of the play, and reveal Corneille's standard themes of illusory love and man's failed desire to possess another person.

Kushner has tweaked those archetypal themes for a contemporary audience, diverting the tragedy of the original and punching up the laughs. Corneille's version was limited by the confines of 17th-century classicism and written in mind-numbing iambic hexameter. A previous English-language translation attempted to replicate the verse form, but Kushner recognizes that it's impossible to translate 12-syllable French couplets into a compelling two-hour story. His adaptation relies mostly on prose--although his characters occasionally burst into rhyme, usually when addressing the audience--and his renovation amounts to an enormously theatrical take on an already melodramatic tale of mortality and lust.

Kushner's hybrid might be called The Disillusion, as murky and sarcastic as it is. He's morphed Corneille's archetypal characters and baroque plot twists into a darker, funnier creation: Where Corneille's play is an old saw about the redemption of love, Kushner's is about people who are thwarted by love. This is a man who wrote a two-part, eight-hour play about the AIDS crisis, whose victims die as a result of acts of passion. For Kushner, love and death are inexorably linked; his is a heartsick and an emotionally pained look at Corneille's question "What is love?"

Corneille's preoccupation with the meaning of love and a man's duty to honor were dictated by the royals he was writing for in 17th-century France, but Kushner--who's writing to please his audience and collect a paycheck--subverts all the imposed ennui and focuses on the fun stuff. Where the principals were once symbols of castigation, Kushner re-creates them as greedy, bitter folks who want to get their rocks off at any cost. In pursuit of passion, the young lovers discard their fathers and their fortunes, the servants betray their employers, and the suitors slay their rivals. Yet the mood is cheerful, because Kushner isn't compelled to make his characters pay for their transgressions.

Kushner has cut some characters and added one, a mute troll who carries his own tongue in a jar and, as performed by Francis Jue, is a captivating oddball who limps away with every scene he's in. That's no mean feat, given the talent that director David Ira Goldstein has assembled here. The ensemble has a whale of a good time deploying Kushner's image-driven language, the men playing bewigged fops and the ladies wringing hands and batting eyelashes with wild abandon. It all plays like grand opera, only the people are thinner.

It's easy to see why ATC continues to bring Suzanne Bouchard to Phoenix every season. As three different slutty, conniving wenches, she storms the stage, spitting out metered rhyme and scoring the evening's biggest laughs with her splendid timing and facile expressions. Terri McMahon, whose heroines freely combine solemn spirits with mindless comedy, is easily Bouchard's match throughout. McMahon portrays three dissimilar women who pose momentarily as the same character. It's a tough task and one that McMahon--whose first exit speech provoked spontaneous applause on opening night--performs with great style.

The men's roles are showier. They wear piles of powdered wigs and stacks of jeweled greatcoats (designer David Kay Mickelsen clearly spent every dime of his budget on these exceptional costumes) and partake in a magnificently choreographed sword fight. As the magician, Ken Ruta has the evening's best moment with his teary-eyed, booming curtain speech.

The real magician here is Goldstein, who's making a career of bringing new life to weary classics: This season and last, he's brought shrewd contemporizations of A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Two Gentlemen of Verona to Herberger Theater Center. As with those adaptations, he's made The Illusion a little larger than its script by separating the story from its colorful characters. Goldstein knows that the play's emotional impact depends on an element of surprise; if we're paying too much attention to the construct of the visions, we'll have the kicker figured out before it arrives. Corneille's second-act huzzah is a revelation because Goldstein has repeatedly drawn us away from the handful of clues that precedes it. He does that with occasional special effects and several gorgeous allusions to The Wizard of Oz. Ace scenic designer Jeff Thomson's stationary set and striking effects by lighting designer Rick Paulsen add to the illusion that we're trapped in a sorcerer's murky lair.

My only complaint is about the play's tacked-on closing scene, a trademark Kushner moment of romantic, metaphysical mush. It's a trifle too sentimental even for a play about magic and love. Still, The Illusion is the best of Kushner's adaptations and the play belongs to him, wrested away from Corneille 350 years after he wrote it and transformed from a thin farce into this stunner of a comedy.

Arizona Theatre Company's production of The Illusion continues through Sunday, April 13, in Center Stage at Herberger Theater Center, 222 East Monroe.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela