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Visions of virtue

A new directing wizard entrances audiences with The Illusion

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In selecting Pierre Corneille's The Illusion as his first production for Actor's Express, Weir Harman has made more than just a commercially canny choice -- he's also made an announcement. The 17th century play, freely adapted by the celebrated Tony Kushner of Angels in America fame, hinges on notions of romance, magic and theatricality, the kinship between stagecraft and witchcraft. In directing The Illusion as his first go, Harman seems to be saying that Actor's Express may have lost one wizardly artistic director with the departure of Chris Coleman, but has gained another. Fortunately, Harman and his cast don't take such signals so seriously as to encumber The Illusion as an entertainment, and the unpredictable, ingeniously constructed play becomes increasingly engaging as it goes along.

Theo Harness plays the sorcerer Alcandre, which offers a nice bit of company continuity, as the performer has been one of Actor's Express' MVPs since the theater's inception. It's also smart casting as Harness always proves an enjoyable performer, and here he makes Alcandre as shrewd and hearty as Merlin or Gandalf at their most down-to-earth.

In his remote cave, Alcandre receives the petition of the wealthy but aging Pridamant (Maurice Ralston) who hopes the magician can locate his long-lost son. Alcandre conjures three visions that show Pridamant's penniless heir (Justin Welborn) facing adversity in wooing an aristocratic, forbidden young woman (Tara Tavarek).

The Illusion proves a protean play, with the characters in Alcandre's visions at times changing names and identities. Alcandre's son, for instance, is referred to as Calisto, Glendor and Theogines in the visions, and his nature alters accordingly. In the first and simplest interlude he's a cocky Romeo courting his beloved with the help of a lovelorn servant (Barbara Cole).

The second vision has more complicated, Machiavellian variations, with three cut-throats vying for Tavarek's hand. For a while, The Illusion can be a little confusing; it's the kind of play that only gradually reveals its own rules. Pridamant frequently acts as the audience surrogate, complaining at the discrepancies and depressing parts, then becoming caught up in the thrillingly choreographed sword fight between Welborn and rival Joel Reuben Ganz. In the second act, Pridamant and Alcandre even sit in the seats with the audience.

The play achieves take-off with the arrival of Jayson Smith's Matamore, a demented nobleman who, along the lines of Don Quixote, is prone to oversized gestures and hilarious flights of hyperbole such as "I am so great that sometimes I want to flee myself." Cole's character proves a schemer worthy of a Shakespearean villainess, driving the melodramatic reversals of the second vision. The final one demonstrates more pragmatic realities, showing what happens after "happily ever after."

Kushner is most famous for his sexual and social politics, but in adapting Corneille's 17th century script he emphasizes the kind of fable-ism you'd see in Angels' supernatural beings. For instance, Alcandre's mute, menacing manservant (an effective Randy Cohlmia) is made to enter the action as Tavarek's icy father. With imaginative confrontations and poetic dialogue, Kushner emphasizes the play's ideas about being a spectator versus a participant.

Alexander Dodge's set is both elaborate and spare, with bare wood, plain wire screens, curtains of plastic sheeting and a backdrop apparently made of black garbage bags. It evokes both the self-conscious theatricality of Brecht and the kind of venue suggested in the prologue of Henry V: An "unworthy scaffold," a mere "cockpit" to be brought to life by "a muse of fire." And Alcandre, like The Tempest's magician Prospero, is the consummate stage manager.

Harman and his cast keep up with The Illusion's shifting landscapes, and it's fun to watch the ways performers alter their roles and how they stay consistent. Welborn is almost annoyingly bouncy and physical in his first incarnation, but grows more subtle and settled in the subsequent ones. Ralston gives Pridamant the proper amounts of restraint and emotional release, helping to convey that the play is at heart more about his relationship to his son than his son's affairs.

The fiendish twist at The Illusion's finale might seem a cheat if it weren't so funny and didn't so neatly fit the play's themes. The Actor's Express production is confident enough to save its most beautiful and surprising image until the very end, with a tableau that can set the hairs on the nape of your neck a-tingle. In staging The Illusion, Harman and company live up to Corneille and Kushner's tribute to the power of theater to leave you moonstruck.

The Illusion plays through Oct. 28 at Actor's Express, King Plow Arts Center, 887 W. Marietta St., with performances at 8 p.m. Thurs.-Sat. and 7 p.m. Sun. (2 p.m. matinees Oct. 1 and 15). $20-25. 404-607-7469.

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