What is real? What is illusion? Hunger Artists Ensemble Theatre poses these questions in its presentation of Tony (Angels in America) Kushner's adaptation of French playwright Pierre Corneille's miraculous L'illusion Comique. Kushner's brilliant update of the 1636 play, redubbed The Illusion, is funnier and more relevant to a contemporary audience than the original--and fortunately for us, Hunger Artists is just the company to capture Kushner's wisdom as well.

An old lawyer named Pridamant seeks out a sorcerer to find out what has become of his long-lost son. Nothing in Pridamant's life has made him happy, and even though his son was a major disappointment to him, nothing else can fill his place in the old man's heart. He wants to embrace his son again, to "make him feel guilty and make him heir to my fortune."

The sorcerer--who may or may not be a crank--creates an illusion with smoke and magic, a vision of the son and his exploits. So while the sorcerer and the lawyer sit and comment on the action, various scenes from the son's life are acted out before us.

The son pursues a beautiful lady, then is aided and thwarted by her amorous maid. He pursues another young lady, then another (all played by the same actress) in scenes that seem to be related to each other, though the costumes, cultures and ages of the characters all change. A series of rivals duel it out with the young man. The girl's father tries to get him killed. The kid appears as, alternately, a libertine, a fortune hunter, a hypocrite, a philanderer, a traitor, an adulterer and a liar--depending on which scenario unfolds before us.

The adorable rogue is, naturally, irresistible both to us and to the ladies in the play. And though his father is horrified by his behavior, when rivals, fathers or maidservants conspire against the young man, the lawyer rails at them from the sidelines. But there's more to the magician's illusions than meets the eye. And the surprise ending puts it all instantly into a new perspective.

Corneille's work mocked the earnest foolishness of youth, the vagaries of love, the machinations of the professional user, the arrogance of the wealthy and the willfulness of old age. But underlying his mockery is an understanding of the fleeting nature of human life and all things material. For Corneille, love is the only reality.

The first time I saw Corneille's play was on the stage of the renowned Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. That production had expensive sets and costumes, highly trained professionals and one of the best directors in America, Garland Wright. It was great, it was classical, it was polished. But I didn't enjoy the experience any more than I did this one, though the production values can't be compared.

Hunger Artists jumps into the Kushner version with such irrepressible energy that even opening-night bungles seemed completely irrelevant to the fun. On a shoestring budget, this fabulous (and modest) little show makes its own magic. The costumes are imaginative and charming, though the fabric is inexpensive. The set is evocative and haunting, though the stage is small. The acting is intriguing and professional, and the music is delightful.

Chuck Muller as the old lawyer is one of the greatest assets. It's not a huge part, but if Pridamant failed to be funny, the show wouldn't work. Muller makes the old man at once cantankerous and insightful--selfish and yearning, tragic and absurd. Douglas White's sorcerer is a terrific old fraud--and, like all magicians, a little common around the edges of his grandiose gestures.

Chris Reber as the son is so filled with the fires of youth you can see him burning up before your eyes. Yvonne Marchese as all the young ladies the son pursues moves like taffeta from one character to the next, rustling with indignation and shining with affection.

T.J. Geist as the maid brings exactly the right wily intelligence and comic timing to the role. It's a sensational performance. But then so is Erik Tieze's. Tieze plays all the rivals, moving with ease from a cowardly fool to an intense lover to a disdainful, murderous prince. William Berry as the crazy Matamore, a suitor of one of the ladies, lends one more dimension to the comedy: careful, measured madness.

Corneille (and now Kushner) taunt the imagination with a series of illusions within illusions, like mirrors reflecting into each other. Over and over again, we're asked to consider what is real, what is true. Best of all, Corneille and Kushner make us laugh while they hold up a mirror in which we ourselves are reflected.

The Illusion, through September 17 at Jack's Theater, 1553 Platte Street, 893-5438.