The challenge of finding a fresh take on any play by The Bard has foiled many an artist, but Avant Bard joyfully clears that hurdle with Illyria, or What You Will, a clever reimagining of Twelfth Night. The play offers a winning vehicle for exploring gender identity and love in all forms in ways that complement Shakespeare’s work and have relevance to today’s world.
The play is set in Club Illyria, a dingy underground queer club in early ‘80s New York City, with music, decor, and costuming to match. Audience members are welcomed to the scene by Feste (Frank Britton), the colorful House DJ.
Club Illyria attracts all types, including the youth Cesario (Ezra Tozian) who gains a job working for the club owner Orsino (Matthew Sparacino). Orsino sends Cesario to plead his love for Olivia (Dani Stoller), a popular singer appearing at the club. Complications arise when Cesario falls for Olivia.
Meanwhile, Cesario’s long-lost brother Sebastian (Montana Monardes) seeks to enjoy the club with Antonio (Adam Lemos), a closeted NYPD officer. Toby (Katie Gallagher) and Andrew (Jenna Rossman) get on the wrong side of Olivia’s manager Malvolio (Christopher Henley), causing them to conspire with Olivia’s back-up dancer Maria (Emma Loughran Hébert) in a revenge plot.
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Shakespeare’s story of noble folks surrendering the magic of romance in an exotic location works well in the club setting. And Shakespeare’s plot for Twelfth Night lends itself to gender flexibility perhaps more than any of his other works.
Jos. B. Musumeci, Jr. has created a wonderful design that features five distinct club locations and two of the requisite mirror balls, backed up by John D. Alexander’s flashing lights and Aaron Bliden’s ‘80s beats.
Dani Stoller gives a standout performance as Olivia, giving her a sensual and flirty persona that is further amplified by her club singing performance. Club musical performances help establish the setting and mood, including a couple of entrancing performances by the fabulous Fabian (Miss Kitty LeLynx).
Illyria, or What You Will
closes November 18, 2018
Details and tickets
There are a few surprises in the plot for those familiar with Twelfth Night. A highlight of the show involves a more sympathetic treatment of Malvolio (Christopher Henley in a memorable performance), who rises above heartbreak after being deceived into thinking Olivia returned his love. Other supporting stars include the previously mentioned Frank Britton as a charming Feste, Emma Loughran Hébert, whose Maria provides a slinky club presence, and the charismatic Montana Monardes as Sebastian.
It can be hard to keep up the energy of the club while performing Shakespeare, and there is some lag in the middle of the streamlined 90 minute show. While a few plot details are skimmed that could confuse audiences new to the play, the story is understandable, especially with the aid of the program’s excellent summary written by Jonelle Walker.
In today’s divisive world, a play this imaginative, provocative and entertaining, in which all get along and there’s a happy resolution to romantic entanglements, is especially satisfying.
Illyria, or What You Will. Freely adapted from William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night by Jonelle Walker and Mitchell Hébert. Directed by Mitchell Hébert. Featuring Frank Britton, Katie Gallagher, Emma Loughran Hébert, Christopher Henley, Adam Lemos, Miss Kitty LeLynx, Montana Monardes, Jenna Rossman, Matthew Sparacino, Dani Stoller, and Ezra Tozian. Set Designer: Jos. B. Musumeci, Jr. Costumer Designer: Kristen P. Ahern. Lighting Designer: John D. Alexander. Composer/Sound Designer: Aaron Bliden. Assistant Sound Designers: Frank Britton, Mitchell Hébert. Choreographer: Emma Loughran Hébert. Intimacy Director/Assistant Choreographer: Claudia Rosales Waters. Properties Designer: Liz Long. Stage Manager: Bryan Boyd. Special Effects: Jenna Rossman. Technical Director: Ralph Derbyshire. Assistant Technical Director: Amber Kilpatrick. Review by Steven McKnight.
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