Language And Its Exuberances Pepper NCR’s Excellent ‘Illusion’

There aren’t any deserts in France, so maybe the moon would make a decent home instead. On the other hand, everybody’s name changes at the drop of a hat; that’s something to consider as well. And the Amanuensis can’t talk because he’s missing his tongue, but don’t worry — love, after all, is the world’s infinite mutability.

Meanwhile, Matamore never fights with his girl face on, because he’s afraid somebody might inadvertently scratch it.

Stream of consciousness is king in Tony Kushner’s The Illusion, the current entry from North Coast Repertory Theatre and billed as a love letter to theater and everyone whose path it’s crossed. Passion, regret, love and magic inundate this fanciful story of 17th-century France, involving a penitent lawyer and the road to his long-lost son, whose only sin was thinking for himself. Dad wonders what’s happened to the boy since, so he seeks counsel from — where else in this otherworldly domain? — a wizened wizard’s cave near the southern town of Remulac.

Major domo The Amanuensis (John Greenleaf, left) doesn’t look very major against magician Alcandre (Kandis Chappell). Photo by Aaron Rumley

The surprise ending will remain a secret here, as director David Ellenstein has worked so hard to forge its trail, resplendent with gorgeous language whose differences fuel a very, very good outing.

Hindsight is often better than 20/20 — just ask the contrite, bourgeois Pridamant of Avignon, who’s come to look for his boy Clindor 15 years after throwing him out of the house. Magician Alcandre condescends accordingly, eventually conjuring three installments from Clindor’s life. Romantic and fraternal relationships bob and weave in these somewhat different worlds, but a father’s undeterred love is rewarded nonetheless.

Everybody wins, the transcending of dimensions notwithstanding.

Marty Burnett’s set and Matt Novotny’s lights are joined at the hip here…

It won’t take you long to settle into the speeches’ treatments, which define Pridamant’s precarious place in both environments. Pridamant and Alcandre speak in fairly straightforward style, adorned with Alcandre’s thick-tongued prickliness and Pridamant’s stuttery befuddlement. From there, the rest of the cast physically bends and sculpts and stylizes the words in the spirit of the astral domain. The differences are subtle but profound — if theater is indeed a culmination of language, this piece is an exemplary show of its depth and breadth.

In the meantime, the paranormal fun doesn’t stop, with a beleaguered Pridamant the last to catch on at play’s end. He does so as a number of cast members don three roles at a time — a minor stroke of genius, however unintended. We’re talkin’ a world where names change on a dime, after all; if the handles shift so effortlessly, why not the people who own them?

John Herzog’s Pridamant is a rich man’s schlub, clearly resigned to the error of his ways. Herzog responds accordingly and wonderfully, with his at-once enfeebled and solicitous orations. Local treasure Kandis Chappell is a wary and weary, been-there-done-that Alcandre — her affectations complement those of John Greenleaf’s recalcitrant Amanuensis as though the two started rehearsing last fall.

Tony Kushner speaks for a multitude of theater freaks and the linguists who love them.

Michael Polak, Sharon Rietkerk, Paul Turbiak and Christina L. Flynn covet their own ensemble culture in multiple roles, their characters’ senses of diplomacy and confrontation at the fore as the situation requires. And watch Andrew Ableson’s body language as the fretful Matamore — his face is a work of frozen misapprehension no matter how physical his character becomes.

Marty Burnett’s set and Matt Novotny’s lights are joined at the hip here — Novotny’s design was obviously painstaking against Burnett’s pleated murkiness. Elisa Benzoni’s costumes and Melanie Chen’s sound have forged a lot of the same relationship.

This piece is an adaptation of Pierre Cornielle’s French baroque play L’Illusion Comique, from 1636. Kushner’s eye and ear have transcended the centuries in a festival of luxuriant speech and persona, a salute to Cornielle’s day and to the hindsight that the best theater embraces in celebration (hard to believe he’s the same guy who wrote the vaunted Angels in America, a critical look at the nation’s mid-1980s social upheaval). Indeed, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Great show.

This review is based on the matinee performance of Feb. 26. The Illusion runs through March 19 at North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987-D Lomas Santa Fe Drive in Solana Beach. $44-$51. 858-451-1055,

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