Review: ‘Illyria, or What You Will’ by Avant Bard

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Illyria is fabulous, darlings. The clothes are to die for. The décor is out of its 1980s mind. The music is as eclectic as it is electric. And plot elements and characters drawn from Twelfth Night fit believably into Jonelle Walker’s and Mitchell Hébert’s adaptation of the Shakespeare comedy.

Miss Kitty LeLynx (Fabian) in Illyria by Avant Bard. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.
Miss Kitty LeLynx (Fabian) in Illyria by Avant Bard. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Avant Bard has transformed Theater Two in Arlington’s Gunston Arts Center into an early-’80s style NYC queer club called Illyria, complete with riotous bright colors, a zebra fabric day bed, a white leather sofa, disco balls, and immersive cabaret seating for most of the audience. Jos. B. Musmeci, Jr.’s set design is not only delightful to look at but creates a world in which the audience is at home with the play’s people and events, however outlandish they may be.

From the moment DJ Feste (Frank Britton), in a Josephian technicolor robe, introduces house diva Miss Kitty LeLynx (Fabian), in her swirling, red and blue patterned gown, Kristen P Ahern’s costumes rivet the audience’s eyes. Being a diva, Miss Kitty naturally deserves and gets equally arresting gowns of other shades as the night proceeds. Fabian also has two of the evening’s memorable songs, the initial “I Want to Be Evil” and a sultry rendition of “Never on Sunday.”

Sebastian (Montana Monardes) and Viola/Cesario (Ezra Tozian) get matching outfits of light green shirts with maroon pants, suspenders, and hats. It’s OK; they’re related. Club owner Orsino (Matthew Sparacino) gets a cream color suit, with an open-neck shirt, to start, switching to bright lime green later. Other characters, like the out-of-control Andrew (Jenna Rossman, who gets to reprise a famous Woody Allen cocaine joke) and Andrew’s partner in crime, Toby (Katie Gallagher, complete with drawn-on mustache) have less showy attire. The point is that the look of each of Ahern’s costumes fits perfectly the character portrayed by the actor who wears it.

With all this visual gaiety, abetted by the lively and varied disco- and soul-influenced soundtrack provided by Aaron Bliden, you might think that characters could get lost amidst the glitz. No worries. Olivia (Dani Stoller), another club performer, lounges sexily, the reluctant object of Orsino’s desire, coming to life when she realizes the object of her true passion. Cesario/Viola embody gracefully the openness to the many varieties of love that is the production’s central theme. Malvolio (Christopher Henley), Olivia’s manager and a stickler for the rules, is undone when tricked by Toby, Andrew, and Maria (Emma Loughran Hébert) into appearing as an awkward drag queen (at that, Illyria treats him more kindly than the underlying Shakespeare play).

Orsino has a moment of romantic despair at his rejection at the hands of Olivia, played with large-scale pathos; he gets to be an angry boss later on. Other than the ending of the play, the evening’s sweetest moment comes when the delectable Sebastian draws Antonio (Adam Lemos) into a touchingly romantic slow dance to “Stand by Me.” At the end, as in Twelfth Night, romantic misunderstandings, mistaken and confused identities, and thoroughly silly plot twists have sorted themselves out, and the characters have found themselves with the right partners. In Twelfth Night, the pairings exclusively involve male/female couples, but, as the denizens of Club Illyria might say, that’s so 17th century.

While pared down, rearranged, and sometimes mixed with contemporary idioms, Shakespeare’s language survives the adaptation quite nicely, and the actors deliver it clearly, even if not in the traditional style of classical Shakespeare productions (but what would such a style be doing in a place like the Illyria, anyhow?). More importantly, the characters in Illyria, and the relationships among them, are fully credible realizations of the lives of Twelfth Night’s people as they might be imagined 380 years after their original creation.

Adam Lemos (Antonio) and Montana Menardes (Sebastian) in Illyria by Avant Bard. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.
Adam Lemos (Antonio) and Montana Menardes (Sebastian) in Illyria by Avant Bard. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Director Mitchell Hébert takes full advantage of the varied spaces of the playing area. Not a corner or nook goes unused at one time or another (though a few of the spaces are not fully visible from some seats on risers in the corners of the theater), allowing for a quick pace and an uninterrupted flow of scenes. John D. Alexander’s lighting design hits the often rapidly changing marks with precision, as well as providing excellent atmospherics for the club.

In his director’s note, Hébert quotes Lin-Manuel Miranda: “Love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love cannot be killed or swept aside.” In a time of peril for love of many kinds, and people of many kinds, taking out into the world the love that reigns in Illyria is not only sweet and beautiful, but more necessary than ever.

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

Illyria, or What You Will, presented by Avant Bard, plays through November 18, 2018, at the Gunston Arts Center Theater Two, 2700 South Lang Street, Arlington VA, through November 18. For tickets, call 703-418-4808 or go online.

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