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.
By Tony Kushner, freely adapted from “L’Illusion Comique” by Pierre Corneille. Directed by Mitchell Hebert. Costumes, Kristy Leigh Hall. With Aaron Bliden. About 2 hours 20 minutes. Through June 16 at Round House Theatre Silver Spring, 8641 Colesville Rd. Call 240-644-1100 or visit