Relocating Twelfth Night to an early-’80s Manhattan disco is a more comfortable fit than setting it in an airport terminal, as Ethan McSweeny’s lavishly budgeted Shakespeare Theatre Company production did 11 months ago. WSC Avant Bard has never had that kind of dough to throw around, but the grimier aesthetic suits their free adaptation of Shakespeare’s most mature comedy—one that turns Arlington’s Gunston Arts Center (aka Gunston Middle School) into a den of dissolution from the time just before AIDS hit and people figured out coke was not, in fact, the real thing. Props designer Liz Long has even dressed the show’s various stages with magazines from the period: Look, there’s a Rolling Stone with John Belushi on the cover.
Playwright Jonelle Walker, who previously remixed The Taming of the Shrew, and veteran actor/director Mitchell Hébert, have shrunk Twelfth Night to a svelte 95 minutes, amplifying the play’s already substantial queerness quotient and casting two actors who little resemble one another, Ezra Tozian and Montana Monardes, as the supposedly identical siblings Viola and Sebastian. Illyria is now a nightclub run by Orsino. To play Orsino, Matthew Sparacino has grown a mustache and soul patch to complement the Tony Montana white suit costume designer Kristen P. Ahern has given him. Frank Britton’s Feste is a DJ in a mustard-colored kaftan and eyeliner, trying to cure his boss’ lovesickness by spinning Giorgio Moroder and Diana Ross 12-inchers while demanding, “How dost thou like this tune?” Fabian is reimagined as a drag queen who drops in to sing a torch song periodically, with Miss Kitty LyLynx doing the honors.
As Olivia, a singer with a residency at the club, Dani Stoller is more at ease with the surviving Elizabethan verse than many of her cohorts. To watch her negotiate the play’s arbitrary pivots into modern speech and its at-least-as-daunting variances in tone—a characteristic that’s present in the First Folio iteration of Twelfth Night, too, to be fair—is to wish that more of the company were on or near her level. But former Avant Bard Artistic Director Christopher Henley persuades as the priggish scold Malvolio. His humiliation and harsh punishment in the original play after he’s tricked into revealing his desire for Olivia are here made over to a sunnier fate.
The less experienced actors in the troupe are rightly assigned the purely comic parts of Maria and the wastrels Andrew Aguecheek (a cokehead in a leather vest) and Sir Toby Belch, attacking their roles with enthusiasm. When these characters cross pollinate their Twelfth Night verse with little fragments of Hamlet or The Winter’s Tale, too, it has the same fun trainspotting effect as when rappers quote their own rhymes. So there’s plenty of novelty, but little of the dread one might expect, knowing the horrors that would hit the LGBT community especially hard in the Reagan era. Twelfth Night is beloved not just for its joy, but for its melancholy. Take that away and what you’re left with is a diverting evening, one that would be a perfect fit for a space with a bar, like Studio Theatre’s Stage 4. Too bad you can’t serve Long Island Iced Teas in a middle school.
To Nov. 18 at 2700 South Lang St., Arlington. $10–$40. (703) 418-4808. wscavantbard.org.