Ivan Viripaev’s Illusions starts with the promise of a story about a married couple. “I want to tell you about a married couple,” one of the evening’s four narrators (Stephanie Hayes) begins. “These were wonderful human beings. They lived together 52 years. 52 years! Always together. Their life was complete.”
But if that were the gist of Viripaev’s preoccupations, his nimble, expandable tale would be called Marriage and not Illusions. Instead, and although the husband and wife in question, Denny and Sandra, at first appear to have lived an ideal love, the shadow cast by the title looms progressively larger as their story is teased out to encompass infidelity and secrets in many guises.
Viripaev is a 40-year old, Moscow-based writer and director whose work has been translated and produced widely in Europe. “Illusions” comes to New York by way of Cazimir Liske, a US-born Russian actor, who translated and directs. Viripaev’s text presents as straight-up storytelling: four actors in their thirties take turns relating episodes in the marital relations of Denny and Sandra, but also of their best friends, Albert and Margaret, all of whom, at the time of the story, are in their eighties and at the end of their lives. One of the narrators takes a certain pleasure in confounding the exercise by adding invented material, but these humorous tangents only momentarily slow down Iripaev’s stream-of-consciousness, that jumps and bubbles over the problem of love with Gertrude Stein-like repetitions and rhythmicity. The result is an absurdist comedy where relationships are never what they seem. Although the twists and turns in the lives of these couples reveal themselves from quite a distance, there is an ironic pleasure and, in the end, a frank sadness, in watching them unfold.
The affably simple text, which could unravel itself as easily in a far-flung dacha as at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, gets a contemporary edge in this American premiere. Microphone in hand, seated on white couches, the quartet of actors could be on the anonymous set of a talk show if it weren’t for isolated moments of fantasy, where video, lighting and a maquette of the set are playfully employed to open the dimensions of the tale out of the merely ordinary. Silhouetted and filmed doubles of the actors seem to allow the lovers to fleetingly inhabit the stories told about them.
Those stories are seamlessly written, soothingly delivered by a fine cast, though their content – what is the nature of true love : mutual, unrequited, transformative, secret? – is not the stuff of happy endings. Which is good news: Viripaev’s cooly skeptical take on the question sits easily with modern sensibilities (and divorce rates). Fittingly then, these Illusions cast no lingering spell and fade just as quickly as the shadows that flicker across the stage.