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Clever stagecraft meets comic witchcraft in RLTP's grand 'Illusion'

The starkly intricate stage design audience members see as they take their seats is the first hint that "The Illusion" is something special. Deep and dark, the many layers of this sorcerer's cave signify the many mysteries soon to be revealed on the Road Less Traveled Theater stage.

One secret the set doesn't reveal is how much fun playwright Tony Kushner packs into his adaptation of a 17th-century comedy by Pierre Corneille, a contemporary of Moliere better known for his tragedies (among those who know him at all).

Written before Kushner's modern-day masterpiece "Angels in America," "The Illusion" is set in an older time but, except for the swords, the troubles plaguing its characters resonate across the centuries, while the humor is fast and fresh.

Alienation of a parent and child leads to tales of lust and love, love and betrayal, betrayal and regret. It begins when a wealthy father, Pridamant (Dave Hayes), seeks out the services of the sorcerer Alcandre (Lisa Vitrano) to locate and reconnect with his long-lost son Calisto (Patrick Cameron). Pridamant explains that he and his son constantly were at odds until the youth, chafing under his father's strict hand, ran away 15 years earlier and had not been seen nor heard from since.

Pridamant, now old and ailing, wants to see his son once more, to tell him he loves him and also to make sure his ungrateful offspring feels guilty for the pain he caused his father.

He gets far more than he bargained for. Unfamiliar with the powers of Alcandre -- and Vitrano makes that power palpable -- Pridamant expects his cash to buy a peek in a crystal ball or some swirling tea leaves. Instead, Alcandre conjures in her cavern three fully realized scenes from the missing young man's life.

Confusingly, in each scene Calisto and those around him have different names and settings. We meet him as a shameless ladies man, then follow him through other romances peppered with duels and deceit.

Cassie Cameron and Sara Kow-Falcone do smart work in portraying the various women in the intrigues as appropriately smitten or savvy, depending on the moment, and Ray Boucher adds the competitive edge against Calisto as his doomed romantic rival.

[Related: New theater looks like a keeper for Road Less Traveled]

And then there is Matamore, our French Falstaff, described in the script as "a lunatic" and played here by Dave Marciniak with such linguistic brio that the petty life-and-death problems of the other characters seem to vanish like magic. His comic timing is so rich he could have been at Kushner's elbow when the lines were written, and though hapless Matamore does not win the lady, Marciniak definitely earns a hearty "Bravo!"

Through it all, through the sorcery and the visions and through Matamore's mishaps, Kushner/Corneille quietly build to a climax that pulls their comedy back from the edge of farce. Alcandre's Amanuensis, a servant who can neither speak nor hear, crosses the mystical boundary to become a father far more fearful than the one Calisto fled. Rolando Gomez, who already was a smoldering presence next to Alcandre, fills the stage with menace as the demanding sire of Calisto's beloved.

Pridamant is both horrified and transfixed, unable to bear what he sees happening to his son and unable to look away, and not knowing that Alcandre has one last secret to reveal.

Then, suddenly, we have a comedy again.

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Because the story takes place in the small French town of Remulac in the 1600s, the various accents or lack thereof by the performers is a little jarring, but whether accented or not, they all show an intelligent comfort with Kushner's playful dialogue.

It is really a delightful show. Director John Hurley makes wonderful use of every inch of the beautiful set, designed by Lynne Koscielniak and augmented by Katie Menke's sound design (listen for the water dripping) and John Rickus's lighting. The elegant costumes by Jenna Damberger suit the characters so well you can imagine Dave Hayes wearing Pridamant's off-shoulder cape when he goes home.

The performance comes complete with one of RLTP's bonus "educational" (and entertaining) program inserts, this time a fold-out reproduction of "The Alchemical Table of Symbols," complete with detailed descriptions of more than a dozen elements.

Audiences also get a flier announcing the 2019-20 season, which includes "Hand to God," rescheduled from last fall; "The Antipodes," with Buffalo-born actor Sean Cullen (seen in "Michael Clayton," many television shows and on Broadway); and a revival of Jon Elston's "Interrogation Room," first presented in RLTP''s inaugural season.

THEATER REVIEW

"The Illusion"

4 stars (out of four)

Another high-quality addition to what has been a stand-out Buffalo theater season, Tony Kushner's adaptation of Pierre Corneille's 17th-century comedy receives its Buffalo premiere. At Road Less Traveled Theater, 456 Main St., through Feb. 10. Tickets are $38; $22 for students, at roadlesstraveledproductions.org, with the special Thursday night student price of $5, cash only, at the door (with ID).

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