North Coast Rep nails Kushner’s ‘Illusion’

By Charlene Baldridge | Theater Review

North Coast Repertory Theatre presents a fine production of Tony Kushner’s “The Illusion” — his thoroughly modern 1988 adaptation of Pierre Corneille’s 17th-century work, “L’Illusion Comique” — playing through March 19.

Playwright Kushner went on to write the Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning epic, “Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia of America,” in 1993.

(l to r) Christina L. Flynn, Michael Polak and Sharon Reitkerk

Artistic Director David Ellenstein fields an attractive company with exemplary language skills.

The production also offers a rare opportunity see actor Kandis Chappell, a beloved and much admired associate artist of The Old Globe. Prior to moving to New York City more than a decade ago, she played more than 30 roles at The Old Globe.

In “The Illusion,” Chappell portrays Alcandre, the sorcerer in whose cave the action takes place. Kudos to Ellenstein for mounting this piece, not seen in professional production in the area since 1999 when it was staged at San Diego Repertory Theatre.

(l to r) John Greanleaf (Amanuensis), Kandis Chappell (Alcandre) and John Herzog (Pridamant) in Tony Kushner’s ‘Illusion’ (Photo by Aaron Rumley)

Alcandre, notably garbed in diaphanous and flowing wizard wear by costume designer Elisa Benzoni (whose other costumes are stupendous), has many notable speeches about love and life, especially as the play reaches its denouement.

All is enhanced of course, by Chappell’s assured grace and her cello-like voice, of which some people never hear enough.

Fifteen years have passed since a father, Pridamant (John Hertzog), sent his son, Calisto (Michael Polak), packing.

Suffering equal parts remorse and curiosity, Pridamant visits Alcandre, who from behind a scrim allows him to view scenes from his son’s life.

Abashed and concerned, Pridamant is understandably mystified because his son’s name and the names of others keep changing.

(l to r) Sharon Reitkerk, Andrew Ableson and Michael Polak as Calisto (Photo by Aaron Rumley)

Calisto has fallen in love with a highborn woman named Malibea, or Isabelle or Hippolyta (Sharon Rietkerk) as the scenes play out.

She is accompanied by her wily servant Elicia, Lyse or Clarina (Christine L. Flynn).

The intrigue concerns the noblewoman’s suitors (played by Paul Turbiak and Andrew Ableson), each by turns more foppish, threatening and grandly clad as time goes by.

Eventually there are knives and swords, and tragedy (with a capital T) ensues. More cannot be divulged without spoiling the surprise.

Alcandre is assisted through the past’s unfolding by a mostly deaf and mute Amanuensis (fabulous John Greanleaf). Alcandre sends him across the veil separating “reality” from her “charades” when Calisto gets into trouble.

The surprise ending is really good fun, but getting there is what matters. The father grows in character before our (equally bewildered) eyes. Kushner’s use of language, meter and rhyme, is a further revelation of his genius.

More than merely funny or eye-catching, the play deals with serious issues surrounding parental love as sons and daughters seek to separate and self determine.

Marty Burnett is scenic designer, Matthew Novotny lighting designer, and Melanie Chen sound designer. Peter Herman provides hair and wig design, and Polak acts as fight director.

— Charlene Baldridge has been writing about the arts since 1979. You can follow her blog at or reach her at

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