"The art of illusion is the art of love, and the art of love is the blood-red heart of the world." This epigram encompasses "The Illusion" at El Portal Circle Theatre. Tony Kushner's 1988 adaptation of 17th-century neoclassical master Pierre Corneille receives an indelible Lone Star Ensemble revival.
Corneille's "L'illusion Comique" premiered in 1636, the year before his masterwork "El Cid" galvanized French tragedy. This plot, however, is a metaphysical comic fairy tale, concerning aging Pridamant (Christopher T. Wood), whose search for his disinherited son (Jay Sefton) has led him to necromancer Alcandre (Lauren Maher). A series of visions finds Pridamant's son risking dishonor and death for his beloved (Natalie Zea) -- or at least her money -- with a happy, albeit ironic, ending.
Kushner honors Corneille's formula while emboldening it. His soulful, precocious script maintains historic style: metered verse, heroic declamation, farcical reversals. But by default, Kushner interweaves his own commentary on both Corneille's era and our own through his inimitable postmodern language.
The production is stunning, transfiguring text and spectator. Scenographer James Robert Fritz conjures up a dark, dazzling carnival space -- one imagines this is what Baz Luhrmann's garage looks like. Marti Squyres' costumes span centuries and textures with exquisite aplomb, and Stephanie Baker's makeup evokes Fellini.
Sefton's double-edged scion and Brian Stanton's eternal rival are exemplary; either actor could play as Hamlet with equal entitlement. Zea's fateful ingenue and Kathryn Gordon's duplicitous maid would suit any female pairing from "Antigone" to "Hedda Gabler" to "Holiday," superbly.
David St. James' Matamore is beyond praise, and the carnies of Kirstin Kluver, Jessica Pohly and Maeve Sullivan are selfless. Mark Gagliardi's Amanuensis, who morphs Brian Blessed and Uncle Fester, might steal the show if it weren't for Wood's fidgeting Pridamant and Maher's gender-switched magician, who are both magnificent.
This also describes the work of the primary magician on the premises, director Elizabeth Mestnik. Her invisible amassing of the forces suggests that Lone Star Ensemble's reputation is no illusion, but the real thing.
Where: El Portal Theatre, Circle Theatre, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood
When: Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m.
Ends: Nov. 23
Contact: (310) 410-1850
Running time: 2 hours