As the braggart Matamore, Benjamin Lloyd is a fustian cherub in clownface and harem pants.

The Illusion

Cheltenham Center for the Arts, 439 Ashbourne Rd., Cheltenham, through Oct. 13 (379-4660).

Pierre Corneille's The Theatrical Illusion, is a one-gimmick play.

Mind you, it's a clever gimmick, and quite a sophisticated one for 1636. Pridamant (Harry Philibosian) comes to the cave of the magician Alcandre (Lee Golden) seeking the whereabouts of his prodigal son (Ian Merrill Peakes), and is shown visions of the son courting an aristocratic woman (Linda Pierson), flirting with her servant (Michele Guidry), and defeating his rival (Kevin O'Donnell). Neither Pridamant nor we can understand why, just when the son has finally won the girl, the courtship starts up all over again, with the same characters in slightly different circumstances, all of them now bearing different names.

By the end of the play, he and we find out why.

There's a lot more going on in Tony Kushner's (pre-Angels in America) adaptation of the play, under the title The Illusion. And there's a lot more to it in Ken Marini's lively and lovely production of Kushner's adaptation at Cheltenham.

Kushner has replaced much of Corneille's language and many of Corneille's philosophical ruminations with sparkling language and ruminations of his own: about what it means to love, what it means to suffer, and (most interesting of all to the audience, sitting and watching in the theater) what it means to watch other people love and suffer. Kushner expands the by-play between Pridamant and Alcandre, gives the magician more room for philosophizing, and gives him a mute henchman (a perfect gargoyle of a role for Anthony Lawton). And he turns a commedia dell'arte braggart soldier into a virtuoso role for an actor, giving the character an added streak of lyricism and a lovely rhapsody to the deserts of the moon.

Marini can't make the courtship episodes any more substantial than they are, though he stages them with style and comic flare. (Ironically, the radical shift in period and style from one scene to another that was so gimmicky and self-indulgent in Marini's staging of Moliere's Don Juan last spring would have matched Corneille's meta-theatrical sensibilities perfectly here.) The costumes (by Janus Stefanowicz) are lovely. The setting (by Wesley Maloney-Truitt) is truly miraculous (picture the junk shop in American Buffalo as though it were staged by a baroque scene designer). The rapier-and-dagger swordfights (by Darla Max) are thrilling, both for Pridamant and for us. And Benjamin Lloyd, as the braggart Matamore, a fustian cherub in clownface and harem pants, lifts both his rhodomontades and his flights of lyricism to the empyrean heights.

And, above all, there's Kushner's wonderful theatrical poetry. He, Corneille and Marini have created a world of magic, where the greatest illusion is love, and where the most precious jewel is the empathetic tear of a receptive theatrical spectator.

-- Cary M. Mazer