It’s All an ‘Illusion’
“Illusion” is defined as “a false idea or belief” … “a thing
that is or is likely to be wrongly perceived or interpreted by the senses.”
In Tony Kushner’s twist-and-turn drama, “The Illusion,” to be performed Feb. 29 through March 4 at Appalachian State University, that definition takes the spotlight.
Is love an illusion? Is emotion connected to nature or even magic?
They’re questions director Derek Gagnier – and Kushner’s work – has posed to the cast of student performers.
“The Illusion” is Kushner’s adaptation of Pierre Corneille’s “L’illusion Comique,” a magical tale of a man’s journey to reconnect with his estranged son – by consulting a magician.
“From there, the play becomes a fantastical journey of romantic, heartfelt passion and the important relationship between parents and children,” said Gagnier, associate professor of theater in the ASU Department of Theatre and Dance. “Instead of making it a literal translation, Kushner made it more applicable to our times, dealing not only with the relationships between parents and children, but the relationship between people and love.”
The play expounds on this theme, as viewers see love from multiple angles – people newly in love, those who’ve celebrated it for a long time, and some whose relationship is nearing its end.
“Throughout it all is this tie-in with nature, magic, and it always questions, ‘What is love?’” Gagnier said. “Any kind of emotion can be linked to love, so it’s really neat, funny and very moving at times.”
Although often described as a drama, Gagnier calls it more of a romance with clever comic elements.
The play is set in 1639 France and follows Pridamant of Avagnon (ASU senior Sean Browne), who consults Alcandre the Magician (junior Victor Rivera) to learn about his estranged son. But Alcandre is no ordinary magician, living in a veritable cave of mechanical wonders.
“He’s able to conjure illusions with his machinery in the cave … portraying what (Pridamant) thinks is the life of his son, who is leading this Don Juan-like existence, and he’s never happy with it,” Gagnier said. “He doesn’t see his son as much as he’d like to … and he hopes to reconnect with him before he dies.”
It’s a story Gagnier said will appeal to any parent, any child who’s felt oppressed by their parents, and anyone who’s ever been in love.
“It’s the illusion of love,” Gagnier said. “There’s a line that says love is like this imaginary sea between two real shores. The shorelines are real, but what’s between them is much more interesting. A rock is tangible, but for two people, love is far more significant than a rock or a tree.
“So, the illusion we’re talking about is not just the physical magic of recreating the memory of this father’s son, but also about what happens when people fall in love, what they believe and how they think they feel.”
Gagnier acknowledged the somewhat controversial nature of Kushner, best known for his celebrated “Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes.” While “The Illusion” is high on romance and intrigue, it’s more implied than actually seen.
“I still think it’s as steamy as anything Kushner has written,” Gagnier said. “You just don’t see it. It’s all implied, but neat to see.”
There’s plenty to see – literally – with what Gagnier called a “wicked swordfight,” but also an elaborate set designed by Michael Helms. Set in Alcandre’s cave, it features an atmospheric backdrop of cave paintings reminiscent of the Chauvet caves of Southern France, a sort of planetarium looming above, affixed with a glowing orb – not to mention a giant turntable on stage, a projection scrim and portals.
Referring to the orb, Gagnier said, “I call it the 17th century television set, but I don’t really want to give away too much of what it is. The content, the intrigue that goes on in the son’s life could be thrown on reality television, but within the frame of the context, it’s the sort of those fairy tale elements you’d see in a Disney film. It’s Disney meets Jerry Springer.”
Like that unlikely meeting would suggest, it’s been fun and somewhat revealing for the performers.
“The (students) have to explore,” Gagnier said. “They’re using themselves in a very open way, their life experiences to bring these characters to life. It’s kind of eye opening, and it’s acting at its best. You’re right there experiencing with them. It’s been a lot of fun to watch their light bulbs go off.”
It’s also a new experience for Gagnier, who typically works on classical plays, like those from Shakespeare or Shaw. With “The Illusion” being his first production of a Kushner play, he said it’s been a “real interesting ride” working on an experimental, relatively new play.
Keith Martin, ASU’s John M. Blackburn Distinguished Professor of Theatre, thinks Kushner would approve.
“Having worked personally with Tony Kushner on the infamous Charlotte Rep production of ‘Angels in America,’ I will say that he would be very pleased with the respect being show his script and the high caliber of design and production that is supporting this brilliant play,” Martin said.
And that’s no illusion.
Cast, Tickets and More
“The Illusion” stars Sean Browne, Jacob Dailey, Victor Rivera, Will Gwyn, Hannah Fuller, Emma Holland, Luke White and Will Allen. Derek Gagnier directs.
“The Illusion” runs Feb. 29 through March 4 at Valborg Theatre on the Appalachian State campus. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Feb. 29 through March 3 and 2 p.m. on Sunday, March 4.
Tickets cost $6 for students and youth ages 6 to 18, $8 for ASU faculty and staff and senior citizens, and $15 for adults. Tickets are available at the Valborg Theatre box office Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 2 to 5 p.m., and Tuesday and Thursday from 12:30 to 5 p.m., or by phone at (828) 262-3063.
Valborg Theatre is located on the north side of Chapell Wilson Hall on Howad Street, directly behind the Turchin Center for the Visual Arts. Parking on campus is available after 5 p.m. in faculty lots, the College Street parking deck and the Rivers Street parking deck.