Yet while a few explosions of theatricality do pepper Liske's staging (small tricks with a microphone, a bank of hot lights that blind the audience) the room seems to drift in grey limbo, a Zen state of no-mind. Even in front of an audience, that sensation of introspection and deep quiet will remain.
Liske's journey with Illusions has been long and long. A Dartmouth student studying Italian literature, he took a sudden interest in theater, then enrolled in an English-language summer program created by the O'Neill Center and the Moscow Art Theater after Chekhov (MXAT). What was meant to be a brief adventure turned into a life's pursuit: Once in Moscow, Liske began studying with the actor Konstantin Raikin, took a degree from the MXAT Acting School, and began a busy career in Moscow as an actor and now teacher and director. Virapaev, one of the thrilling young talents in the burgeoning Russian playwrighting scene, is a friend. After performing in Illusions, first in Moscow and then at the Royal Court in London, Liske still hadn't had enough of this strange, nearly silent work, so he retranslated it and took it on as a directing project.
In some ways, despite his training, Liske works against the Russian grain. “My process,” he says, “depends much more on the author than on the director. What I've been interested in in the last year is theater that connects the audience with theauthor—rather than with the director, or even the actors.” The result is something that looks like documentary theater (direct address, simplicity, a sense of an ongoing conversation), yet is actually asking eternal questions rather than dealing with current events.
Illusions tells the intertwining tale of two octogenarian couples, Sandra and Denny and Albert and Margaret. Four actors—variously trustworthy—approach a microphone to narrate the couples' stories confidingly to the audience. Stephanie Hayes, exquisitely precise, welcomes the watchers with a 'hello,' but she measures out her affections carefully. In rehearsal she asks whether she should work in “the smiles” more. “I just happen to have the most serious bits in the piece,” worries Hayes, “Should I be smiling?”
Considering that Hayes has just described the death of one character, a woman tortured by considerable heartbreak, you can see why she might be concerned.Yet despite the story's constant emphasis on death, Liske directs his actors to attain a constant state of upward tending joyfulness. Actress Annie Purcell describes it in rehearsal as “this euphoric, ecstatic thing” —or, another time, “an unfurling feeling of love.”
Love is all over Illusions. There's no stylish irony here; the characters' central concern is whether “true” love must be requited love, a point the story's subjects return to as they ponder the fidelity of their spouses. All four characters will die preoccupied by this issue; lifelong friendships are torn apart. Viripaev's hypnotic text, particularly as translated by Liske, worries over this emotional point for almost its entire length, returning obsessively to it, striking it as the favorite chord. Sentimental melodrama is presented as minimalism, so the fact that the speakers refuse to “perform” enlarges the question about love—these non-pretending narrations make us feel as though the actor-audience relationship is on a strange new footing. Our desire for escapism and pretense and illusion is, tellingly, unrequited.
In rehearsal, the examination goes deeply inward. Conversation turns to the James Turrell exhibit at the Guggenheim (the light artist who can make a glowing light source seem like a door into the infinite) and to each performer's understanding of death. The goal for Liske, though, is that these conversations penetrate into the audience. “The thing that I find at the center of Viripaev's piece is that death is a great teacher. It teaches us that love is the path in life. There is, it turns out, a path that can bring you to less suffering. And it has nothing to do with religion, with metaphysics. It's just practical! But this is the important stuff; these are the things we ought to talk about. I mean, is there any other question we should be asking?”
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Helen Shaw currently writes about theater for Time Out New York magazine and teaches theater studies and theater theory at NYUTisch. Previously, she was senior theater critic for the NewYork Sun and has contributed to the Village Voice, Performing Arts Journal, Playbill, TheatreForum, the Jewish Daily Forward, and the forward for Mac Wellman’s anthology of plays, The Difficulty of Crossing a Field. She curated the Prelude festival in 2011 and 2012, and coordinated programs at the Martin E. Segal Theater Center for approximately the same period. She also works as a dramaturg, and has assisted Martha Clarke, Lear deBessonet, and Simon McBurney. She has an MFA in dramaturgy from the American Repertory Theater Institute at Harvard University and a BA in Anthropology from Harvard.