Frames of Illusion


Of framing devices in the theater wherein the blogger marvels at how the frame of the stage when coupled with the frame of a portrait makes possible the impossible by showing how easy it is to cross in and out of real and illusory worlds.

Act Two of Farinelli and the King continues the study in illusion-making. King Philippe, Farinelli and Queen Isabella have left the court in Madrid and have moved into an Edenic woods setting to embark on an experiment. Philippe has taken it into his head that perhaps he can actually hear the music of the stars if he is closer to them and both Farinelli and Isabella are willing to give it a try because Philippe’s grasp on reality is less tenuous when he is in the woods. While the move from court setting to woods setting is a realistic detail because King Philippe did actually do so, it is also a tried and true theatrical convention. Think of all those Shakespeare plays with characters abandoning court/city life for an idealized rural setting (what the Shakespearean scholar, Northrup Frye referred to as the “green world”) like the Utopian Forest of Arden in As You Like It or the fairy-laden woods in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The play amps up the theatricality of the setting because what the audience sees is not real woods, but rather a canvas with the painting of a woods scene. The production continues to foreground the illusion of reality for when Farinelli, the actor, tries to make a garden grow out of the trap door in the stage floor, he has no luck until Farinelli, the singer, comes in, sings, drops some of his magical/theatrical confetti left over from the Act One finale into the trap door and lo and behold, a garden, though plastic, but still garden enough to make the audience smile in appreciation, magically springs up.

One of the more striking moments demanding the audience’s acknowledgment that the boundary between illusion and reality is crossable occurs when the characters break out of the reality of the world of the play and directly address the audience. At first, since it’s just the king looking out into the audience to ask in surprise who all the people out there are, we can tell ourselves it’s part of the play and he’s seeing things again. But, then, ALL of the characters, including the ones not in this scene, come out and acknowledge the audience’s presence, even the ones up in the “trees which, of course, is not a reference to trees at all but to the people sitting in the upper-tier stage seats. Philippe actually singles out individual audience members sitting in the front rows of the orchestra and casts them as characters in the play when he points out the “gardener” and his numerous family members (Isabella chimes in with the adjective “grubby”) and then cries with delight that he recognizes the woods’ infamous “poacher”.

But perhaps the moment I loved best occurred towards the end of the play. Mark Rylance as King Philippe literally transforms himself into the royal figure in the Jean Ranc 1723 equestrian portrait of King Philippe V (the portrait that audiences see at the beginning of the play and that accompanies this blog post). Philippe has come to terms with the idea that he must forsake his woodland Utopia and rejoin the world of the court in Madrid. The possibility of war has reared its ominous head and so Philippe must present himself as a warrior king. This leads to an extended sequence in which stage hands come on stage and start to “dress” Philippe for his part, helping him put on his knee-high, leather boots, his chest armor, his white leather gloves and, the piece de la resistance, but perhaps not very helpful on an actual battlefield because of its sheer weight, the ornately curled wig with an inordinate number of curls that cascade down well past the king’s shoulders. What we see before us is a figure looking every bit the monarch that was featured in the equestrian portrait that occupied the stage when the play opened. All that is missing is the horse. Suddenly, an enormous, very plastic and fake horse, but still meticulously detailed with regard to mane and tail and hooves and bent leg, is pulled onto the stage and Philippe sits upon it raising his arm as if about to go to battle. Of course, all he’s actually done is become the figure in the painting. Just when we think the king is REALLY a king, we discover he is pure illusion becoming a figure in a portrait. What I loved about the moment is that the “real” portrait we had seen at the beginning of the play (we had to see it because it was something like 10 by 10 feet) becomes a living portrait and the frame of the portrait is now subsumed into the frame of the stage creating a hall of mirrors effect constantly challenging us to ask “is it live or is it Memorex?”

One final point: one critic took issue with the writing, complaining that it was too obvious and clunky, using as examples the following lines: “As the King’s doctor, I…” or “As the King’s second wife, I…”  However, what the critic misses, is that as with all of the other examples I’ve just gone over, this kind of writing emphasizes the THEATRICALITY of the material. And so, to me, to have a character call attention to itself as a character “as the King’s chief minister” or “As the King’s doctor” or “As the King’s second wife” acknowledges that this is THEATER wherein actors become King’s second wife or King’s doctor or King’s chief minister AND what is FUN about it is that it asks the audience to acknowledge and participate in the construction of this illusion.  What van Kampen’s script is interested in doing that the critics aren’t necessarily getting is hyping up the THEATRICALITY of the material.

And there you have it: all of the reasons, especially the ones that critics complained about, that allowed Farinelli And The King to touch my soul.  If, like me, you like thinking about the porous boundary between reality and illusion, and if, like me, you love when the arts collaborate on stage (the fine art of painting! The art of music, both sung and instrumental! The art of theater!), then I encourage you to see Farinelli And The King before the end of its run at the end of March, especially since tickets have started to appear on TKTS and TDF so you can get a ticket for a fairly reasonable price.


2 thoughts on “Frames of Illusion

  1. I am enamored with the use of the portrait as a device in the play. To extend the idea of illusion versus reality even further, you have a king who isn’t a warrior, a king isn’t strong (at least not in mind), a king who is fairly helpless (as he is helped into his clothing like most nobility), and yet you have a portrait that shows him on the battlefield without a piece of hair or armor out of place. Being a king is all about illusion. Being born to a certain family guarantees nothing in terms of talent or tactical prowess, and what a king lacks, he pretend he has to keep the country stable.
    You’ve thoroughly convinced me that I want to see this play.


    1. Great insights about kingship. Sounds reminiscent of quite a few of our present world leaders too, so your insight is just that more valuable. Plus pointing out the illusion of class position is also key at this present time. And I love that it’s theater and then talking about theater that brings us to these insights. If you do get to see the performance, I hope that you will write more of your insights.

      Liked by 1 person

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