Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Illusion

by Pierre Corneille
Adapted by Tony Kushner
 Presented by A Noise Within
Directed by Casey Stangl

Review by Phillip Kelly

I must admit it took me awhile to get to writing (and then publishing) this review. As a theatre artist I look for things that provoke or evoke a response, something that drives me to speak and continue a conversation. Whether it's a "positive" or "negative" review, I hope to enliven people to see the show and respect the artform, and while there was a lot of effort put into Casey Stangl's production, I was left unmoved to feel one way or the other, which is a strange place to be for me as a theatre artist and performer.

I'm not sure what it was exactly that kept me at a distance, the story itself is kind of a fairy tale, which I like: an aging aristocratic Father wishes to see what's become of his son who ran away years ago. He visits a Witch in hopes that she will be able to show him the events of his son's life. Over the next two hours we're shown, in stops and starts, the boy's presumed life. There's a lot of lessons learned, though not necessarily by the characters. It's the type of show in which an audience member learns from the truth presented through the way the characters respond or don't. I get it. I completely understand the show, the story, every angle - it just didn't connect with me on an emotional level or even a visceral level.

Could it be the source material? There are enough ideas there that it could be interesting. The translation? Kushner's words have moments of beauty, but also moments that are stilted. I haven't read the translation, so I'm not sure how much is dictated by the play itself. Which brings me to the direction. It breaks down into two categories: the acting and the tone. 

I'll begin with the tone: the production had a quality about it that was minimal and extravagant at the same time. I guess minimal in the sense that all of the work put into it didn't immerse me in the production. There were a few visual tricks that were great, but the sound design, while there, was simply there (And I get why.) It felt the same with the set. Some of the visual clues were clever, but those moments weren't enough to give a consistent weight to the production. The staging of the actors was so-so. Nothing profound and sometimes contrived. While you get the feeling that those moments are going to add up to something greater, and they do, those contrivances happen far too often and far too early on in the production. Much of the show is about presenting something that isn't real, hence the title, but that doesn't mean that things should settle on the side of artificial, which brings me to the direction of the actors.

There's an element of this production that needs to be artificial and much of this comes to life with the choices made between actors and director. Stangl certainly made choices. It's clear, and becomes even clearer as the show progresses. But the artifice that's explored isn't the exception for much of the show, but the go to and because of this, there's nothing real at all to connect to, to hold on to, to grow with. There's a point in which cleverness is only clever and to me clever only works when there's already something in place to twist.

There are some standout performances and moments within the production. Freddy Douglas, while even in those more artificial moments, grounds his shifting villain to the floor and is thoroughly enjoyable to watch. As the play progresses, Deborah Strang finds some moments as the Witch, Alcandre, especially in a highly poetic speech about love (which also shows off Kushner's talents). Abby Craden, as the devilish and manipulative attendant has some delicious moments. You get the feeling that Cornielle, and likewise Kushner, enjoyed writing the villains in this show a little more than the romantic couple leading the show. The lovers, Devon Sorvari and Graham Hamilton, embrace the choices and show themselves committed actors, but the sands shift so often to show us how clever it's tricks are, you never are able to get hold of it and truly care for the characters, and I think I just answered why I didn't connect with it as much as my intelligence told me I should have, and maybe you will. There's no right or wrong in this questionnaire, only opinion, and everyone should have one.

Playing though May 19th (2pm and 8pm on the 19th) 
at A Noise Within
3352 East Foothill Blvd.
Pasadena, CA 91107
Tickets and info: 
626-356-3100 ext. 1

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