Theatre Review: ‘Illyria” at Georgia Shakespeare

By Manning Harris
fmanningh@gmail.com

“If music be the food of love, play on, give me excess of it, that, surfeiting, the appetite may sicken and so die.”

So sayeth the lovesick Orsino (Joe Knezevich) in a play in which almost everyone is lovesick to some degree:  Georgia Shakespeare’s “Illyria: A Twelfth Night Musical,” based of course on the Bard’s “Twelfth Night,” which many consider his finest pure comedy.  It will run in repertory with two other shows through August 5, so please check the website for days and times.

“Illyria” is a joyful frolic, full of music and color, a delightful summer entertainment, adapted and directed by John R. Briggs, who also wrote the music (with Eric Frampton) and lyrics.

It is a comedy of mistaken identity, frustrated romance, and just plain wackiness; it refuses to take itself seriously, and that is its triumph.  Twins Viola (Courtney Patterson) and Sebastian (Maxim Gukhman), each believing the other lost, are shipwrecked on a magic island.  Viola disguises herself as a man called Cesario, and the twins, despite their grieving for each other, go looking for love; or more accurately, love is looking for them.  Viola becomes a page to Duke Orsino, and Lady Olivia (Anna Kimmell) promptly falls for her/him.  Naturally, Orsino is smitten with Olivia.

Meanwhile, some of Shakespeare’s goofiest clowns—Sir Toby Belch (Chris Kayser), Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Mark Cabus), and the pompous Malvolio (Allen O’Reilly, in a  completely delightful performance)–are off and running with sidekicks Feste (Travis Smith) and Maria (Megan McFarland).

In fact, I propose a new vaudeville team of O’Reilly, McFarland, Eugene H. Russell IV (as Fabian), and Cabus—when these four are plotting and playing in Act I, they’re like four naughty children having fun, and they let us watch and wish we were with them.  Happily, through the magic of theatre, we are.

To say that there’s a mélange of musical styles and songs in “Illyria” is putting it mildly.  Mr. Briggs and Mr. Frampton have left no lyrical stone unturned; there are around 21 songs in the show, so we’re almost never without music.  One of the most annoying things about the talented GA Shakespeare actors is that almost all of them can sing—some extremely well.  Life is not fair.   For example, a fine actor like Joe Knezevich, who can thrill you as Richard III, has no business singing so well.  Mais c’est la vie.  Other outstanding vocalists are Maxim Gukhman and Travis Smith (both of whom have a powerful stage presence); and Anna Kimmell sings very well indeed.

In actuality, I think a little judicious musical editing would have served the production well; a slightly more brisk pace would have been a boon; the show’s just a tad long.  “Illyria’s” zany characters need a really zippy tempo; and for the most part, they’ve got it.

At times the movement and color onstage reminded me of “The Birdcage,” set in South Beach, based on “La Cage Aux Folles.” There is also the kind of frenetic fun that is present in that film.

I suppose Shakespeare purists, a vanishing breed, may squawk, but I say when in Rome…  “Illyria: A Twelfth Night Musical” will lift your spirits.

For more information, visit gashakespeare.org.

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