Richard Hamburger

‘The Illusion’ is clearly excellent
Dallas Theater Center production is sophisticated and funny

By Lawson Taitte / The Dallas Morning News

Elegance doesn’t necessarily mean frilly decoration. Nor does it preclude bawdy laughter.

Though set in the 17th century and designed by that master of gorgeous understatement, Tony Award winner (and nominee again this year) Michael Yeargan, the Dallas Theater Center’s The Illusion actually looks rather stark and contemporary, a cave constructed of dark panels and floor-to-ceiling mirrors. Thanks to director Richard Hamburger’s gift for humor, it’s also a masterpiece of comic acting.

But it’s elegant, all the same.

The Theater Center opened Tony Kushner’s free adaptation of Corneille’s baroque comedy-drama at the Kalita Humphreys Theater on Tuesday. The text might strike you as a cross between modern-language Shakespeare and a Fellini screenplay.

A dignified older man (Keith Jochim) makes his way down the aisle of the darkened auditorium. He’s searching for a famous soothsayer (James McDonnell) in hopes of learning what has become of the son he drove from home years before.

The magician shows the father visions of various scenes in which the son (Al Espinosa) is wooing a rich young lady (Kathryn Meisle) away from the suitor (Jakie Cabe) her own family prefers. It’s a bit confusing – to the father as well as the audience – because the son’s name keeps changing in each vignette.

Corneille loved high-flown language, and Mr. Kushner is no slouch in the eloquence department himself. The performers, many of them New York-based, relish the literary qualities of the text. We hear every vowel and consonant, but the effect is graceful rather than stiff.

The production’s richest pleasures, though, come from two of the subordinate characters. Brienin Bryant rolls up every pert lady’s maid in the history of the theater into one delicious package, luring the audience’s affection with a batted eyelash or a purred joke.

Brad Bellamy earns even bigger laughs as that stock stage figure, the braggart soldier. He hardly gets out a line before the costume Wade Laboissonniere designed for him, with its prominent codpiece, provokes repeated titters. Then his lofty assertions of prowess, followed immediately by beautifully phrased retreats into cowardice, bring down the house.

The Illusion is a fable that’s deeper than it first appears. It’s also evanescent and entertaining – an elegant evening in the theater.

© Richard Hamburger, Theater Director      Site design and maintenance by Amy Lacy.