Editors' pick

The Illusion


Editorial Review

REVIEW: Believe in ‘Illusion’s’ impressive cast
By Nelson Pressley
Friday, June 1, 2012

Rapture comes naturally to playwright Tony Kushner, and in “The Illusion,” he plants a big swoony kiss on the lips of the theater. At Forum Theatre, director Mitchell Hebert kisses right back: He envisions the show as a one-ring circus, a dark and tawdry little place that opens up neatly into Kushner’s world of enchantments.

A lot of the magic of “The Illusion” actually dates back to French dramatist Pierre Corneille, whose 1636 drama inspired Kushner’s adaptation. The plot follows a man who asks a magician to conjure up his estranged son, and Kushner -- writing at about the same time he was creating “Angels in America” -- sticks fairly close to Corneille.

Hebert sticks close to Kushner, too, even if the show (at Round House’s Silver Spring theater) opens with a bit of card trick hocus-pocus and with Pridamant -- the questing father -- navigating onto the darkened stage by the light of his mobile phone. As the story chronicles the son’s loves and quarrels, Hebert’s impressive cast acts with an exactitude and flamboyance that rises to Kushner’s whip-smart style.

In fact, the cast is practically musical, with different clusters of the ensemble working in distinctive keys. Brian Hemmingsen and Nanna Ingvarsson sound tragic notes: Hemmingsen has a brooding quality as the gruff Pridamant, watching scenes of his son’s life summoned by Alcan­dre, the magician played with weary wonder by the barefoot, sad-eyed, commanding Ingvarsson. You can sense both actors peering through layers of time as they observe what happens within the circus ring or what pops out from behind the heavy red curtain of Daniel Pinha’s scenic design.

Mark Halpern is brighter as the young son, and so is Brynn Tucker as the eternal object of his affection. Their characters’ names change whenever the scenes move forward in time, an important detail that Pridamant grouses about as he views from the sidelines. Gwen Grastorf brings comic simplicity to the role of the maid (who is attracted to the son, naturally), and Joe Brack is witty as various types of rivals. All four performers have an easy way with Kushner’s often elevated language, even when their characters’ speeches begin to run on.

The absurd is ushered in by Scott McCormick’s florid turn as Matamore, a grotesque egotist who is another of the son’s rivals. McCormick brings a whiff of the Cowardly Lion to the part, and also helps pivot the play toward philosophy with the buffoonish Matamore’s musings on the moon.

That brings “The Illusion” back to theatrics, a theme that Hebert handles with a rewardingly cold-blooded professionalism. Ariel J. Benjamin’s lights and Matthew Nielson’s sound design are as atmospheric and precise as you could hope for in a show orchestrated by a magician, and you can say the same for the actors, who are not only likable but also notably controlled. It’s a snappy act, all calibrated to convince you of Corneille’s and Kushner’s core belief that the stage’s illusions matter.

PREVIEW: Hebert steps offstage for current role
By Stephanie Merry
Friday, May 25, 2012

You might say local stage fixture Mitchell Hebert has a flair for disappearing acts; one minute you see him, and the next he has been swallowed whole by any of an assortment of characters. Decadently devilish as Captain Hook at Olney and debonair, if punctilious, as Phileas Fogg at Round House, he also can conjure the heavy weight of heartache, transforming into a grief-stricken father in “Clybourne Park” at Woolly Mammoth.

But now the recent Helen Hayes Award winner (“After the Fall”) is taking on another role, and this time he’s vanishing from the stage entirely. Hebert trades in acting for directing with Forum Theatre’s “The Illusion,” Tony Kushner’s loose adaptation of Pierre Corneille’s “L’illusion Comique.”

The assignment is nothing new to Hebert, who teaches drama at the University of Maryland and has directed a number of student productions. Yet with such an industrious career in front of audiences, his backstage credentials tend to elude even in-the-know theatergoers.

“A lot of theaters perceive you as an actor, and when you start talking to them as a director, it kind of makes their head explode a little bit,” Hebert says.

The Wisconsin native hadn’t aggressively pursued professional directing opportunities since guiding the well-received “Rabbit Hole” at Olney in 2008, but he made the conscious decision to carve out time -- and pass on potentially interesting roles -- to direct “The Illusion.”

The script, which Hebert describes as both humorous and profound, had gotten under his skin after he directed it at U-Md. in 2009. The story follows a man who is suddenly confronted by his own mortality, which leads to a search for his estranged son. Desperate, he hires a sorceress, who summons moments from the son’s life, offering a glimpse of the important milestones the man has missed.

Though proud of the student production, Hebert realized there were limitations with a cast of students, who hadn’t experienced life’s large tragedies.

“I wanted to do it again, and I wanted to do it with older actors,” Hebert says. “I wanted to do it with actors who understood heartbreak, loss . . . the deep-into-the-marrow-of-your-bones kind of loss.”

His gravitation toward this show ended up sparking a kind of theatrical kismet. Forum Theatre Artistic Director Michael Dove says “We consider Tony Kushner the most perfect Forum playwright” because his style fits with the company’s mission of thought-provoking and discussion-worthy theater.

“I always said, if someone comes to us with an idea for [‘The Illusion’], of how they wanted to make it happen, that it would be something we’d be really interested in,” Dove says. “And sure enough . . .”

When Hebert approached Forum with the idea, Dove had no hesi­ta­tion, even though his knowledge of Hebert’s direction was limited to a one-day rehearsal for a staged reading.

“I was really blown away by how articulate he was,” Dove says. “And obviously as such an experienced actor, he has this level of communication with actors and understanding of what they needed to hear.”

Hebert’s directing tends toward collaborative. In part, he takes inspiration from Howard Shalwitz -- artistic director of Woolly Mammoth, where Hebert is a company member -- whose style might be described as giving actors a map of the landscape but no explicit instructions regarding the best route.

“You don’t get so anal and so dictatorial that you start really telling people, ‘It’s this and this and this,’ because when you do that, they will simply stop and wait for you to tell them what to do,” he says.

At rehearsal, Hebert seems to be in his element as a director, yet this isn’t a bid to reinvent his career. Next season he will return to acting, playing the Sheriff of Nottingham in “Young Robin Hood” (“Another in a long list of bad guys,” he jokes) before he directs “Glengarry Glen Ross,” both at Round House.

“It’s a different set of muscles,” Hebert says, comparing acting with directing. “I would never say I want to do one to the exclusion of the other. That’s never a goal of mine.”