Freely adapting Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Jonelle Walker and Mitchell Hébert arrived at the auspicious conceit of setting the Bard’s romantic comedy of fluid identities and genders inside an ’80s nightclub dive in NYC.
Thus, WSC Avant Bard’s production transforms the Gunston Arts Center stage into the cabaret/dance floor of the club Illyria. The scenic design by Joseph B. Musumeci, Jr. immerses the audience via cocktail tables set amidst the action, while copious pastels and a framed Nagel nude do their duties evoking the era. As a final touch, like any decent nightclub, Illyria (★★) needs the right crowd for the play’s vivid cast of characters to entertain and inspire. The right crowd should start with the performers, who, in this case, are not all up to the task.
Starting at the top, in a nifty Warhol wig, Christopher Henley’s vain, deceived Malvolio is ever a pleasure to listen to and observe. Henley soundly hoists the language aloft and creates a supporting character worth caring about in this thickly plotted production. He’s matched most often with the lady his Malvolio serves, Olivia, played by Dani Stoller as a sort of rock video vixen who’s immune to the charms of the lustful club owner Orsino (Matthew Sparacino).
Stoller and Sparacino both have breakout comic moments — his being a drunken breakdown over Olivia, performed to Laura Branigan’s “Gloria” — while conveying the romantic framework of Shakespeare’s love triangle. Their third in the triangle is Viola, an innocent who turns up at Illyria disguised as Cesario. Ezra Tozian’s performance brings not much clarity or meaning to the story’s storm of mixed emotions, and Tozian attacks the adapted Shakespearean language almost syllabically, leaving Cesario’s pleas seriously wanting for persuasive ardor. There are a few more in the cast who are even less persuasive.
However, Montana Monardes as Cesario’s twin Sebastian and Adam Lemos as Sebastian’s lover Antonio play a credible version of young love. Although their romance seems stranded apart from the rest of the action due to the production’s episodic pacing, the actors’ rapport contributes nicely to the show’s queer-friendly atmosphere.
Illyria’s ambiance might best be exemplified by its resident chanteuse Fabian, played by Miss Kitty LeLynx (aka Jase Parker). Fabian teeters in and out to reflect the characters’ hope, lust, cynicism and bitterness back at the audience. She opens with a respectable spin through Eartha Kitt’s “I Wanna Be Evil,” and she might conjure magic if she had the right crowd. But she’s instead crowded out by a hit-or-miss ensemble who can’t capture the moment at club Illyria.
Illyria runs to Nov. 18 at the Gunston Arts Center, 2700 South Lang St. in Arlington. Tickets are $40. Call 703-418-4808 or visit avantbard.org/tickets.