BWW Reviews: Independent Shakespeare Co. Revels in Downton Abbey-Inspired TWELFTH NIGHT
Over the past ten years, Independent Shakespeare Co. has staked its claim on the city of Los Angeles with its "of the people, by the people, for the people" brand of Shakespeare. Built from the ground up by two regular people (Melissa Chalsma and David Melville) who love what they do, they have created a fiercely loyal following that can't get enough of their kind of real-people theatre.
Thousands attend their Griffith Park Free Shakespeare Festival each summer, many of whom return again and again because an ISC production was their first introduction to a classical art form...and lo and behold, they loved it. It is an accessible company of friendly folk who enjoy talking to their audience before the play begins, during intermission, and especially after the show is over. They hold bilingual pre-show workshops (Players in the Park/Teatristas en el parque) for those who may not speak English as a first language to help them understand and enjoy the productions as a family, and they host other local cultural organizations on their stage before many of their shows.
They are the people's Shakespeare company, where everyone is treated like an important member of their community and there is no division between groups. If you're one of the people, this is your club. And that's the way they like it.
It is fitting then that the season opener, TWELFTH NIGHT, also deals with people from both ends of the spectrum in their upstairs/downstairs Downton Abbey-inspired world.
At the upper end of the ecosystem is Count Orsino (Ryan Vincent Anderson), in love with the Lady Olivia (Claudia de Vasco), who is mourning her deceased father and brother. Romance is the last thing on this very proper, buttoned-up gentlewoman's mind, especially from Orsino, but when a new servant, Cesario (Kalean Ung), becomes the messenger who delivers Orsino's love letters, all that changes as the youth accidentally stirs the dormant fire within Olivia's giddy heart.
Shakespeare's ingenious mastery of mistaken identities once again bubbles up in all its comedic glory for Cesario is really Viola, a young noblewoman disguised as a boy to protect her virtue after being shipwrecked on Illyria's shore. And while Olivia sets her sights on Cesario, Viola has fallen in love with Orsino, who is also under the assumption that she is a boy. Thus, the fun begins in earnest when these three set upon Shakespeare's roundabout path to love.
Truth in performance, with an eye to lifting the comedy, is one of director Melissa Chalsma's greatest strengths and her actors find delightful new twists on their characters under her care. Anderson offers a unique take on the Count, making him not just a stiff member of the nobility, but a lovelorn man who falls into fits of weeping at the drop of a hat, much to the delight of the audience.
De Vasco wrings fresh humor from the situational aspects of the comedy by knowing when to play it straight and Ung's smart, centered Viola has the deportment to not only convince everyone that she's a high-level servant boy, but to keep her character's energy her own while those around her become increasingly more frenzied. This calm at the center of the comic storm facilitates joyful mayhem without it becoming unruly chaos.
At the same time, mischief's afoot in Olivia's house where her bawdy uncle, Sir Toby Belch (Danny Campbell), her servant Maria (Bernadette Sullivan), and Feste the Clown (David Melville) conspire to teach her overweening steward, Malvolio (Luis Galindo), a lesson. The puffed-up kill-joy despises their constant revelry and berates them every chance he gets. His blend of entitlement and secret grand ambition offers the perfect set-up for the others to make a fool out of him and when the situation presents itself they go after him with glee. Galindo, who has proven his skill with tragic characters like last season's Macbeth, now gets the opportunity to show off his wonderfully droll comic timing as the stuffy, swaggering Malvolio, and he plays it for all it's worth.
Sullivan can exact a laugh by simply making an abrupt shift in her focus and Campbell's bits rival Melville and André Martin's (as the clodpoll, Sir Andrew Aguecheek) in entertainment value. When Martin perceives that Ung has offended him he insists on a duel and the two engage in the kind of ludicrous swordfight that the audience has been waiting on the edge of their seats to see. Never were there two people who wanted to avoid a fight more than this pair and their limp-wristed, physical staging is one of the show's hilarious highlights.
In an inspired costume choice, designer Garry Lennon significantly clothes Aguecheek in a foppish pastel yellow suit, with high-water trousers and idiotic accents, that carries a handsome payoff when he overhears a truth about Olivia's color preferences. Sir Andrew fancies himself a potential suitor for her affection but one can see from the outset that she would never entertain this foolish man's advances.
Lennon does a marvelous job of bringing the Downton Abbey look to life contrasting the formal attire of the wealthy with simpler rustic garments for the lower class, and Caitlin Lainoff's set design gives more than one character the perfect platform from which to view the little people below. For Malvolio it acts like a crystal ball to the world he wishes to rule, and later, Feste the clown uses the staircases to punctuate his switch between characters when tormenting the imprisoned Malvolio mid-prank. (For ISC regulars, it's like Dr. Pinch has spawned an evil twin and it's as funny as it sounds.)
David Melville has the golden touch when it comes to knowing what's funny. Let him loose as a clown and you'll get some of the best laughs to be found on a stage anywhere in LA. In TWELFTH NIGHT he travels with his ukulele in hand and a drum set on his back, operating the beaters and cymbals with his feet each time he takes a step. It's a walking sight gag that never gets old, and when his poor bass drum becomes the unwitting victim of violence, a collective "awww" springs from the crowd in sympathy. He's a little bit naughty, especially when Fabian (Julia Aks) is played by a woman, and whole lot of fun, calling the other characters out with his witty exchanges.
And so it is another rousing success for Independent Shakespeare Co. whose TWELFTH NIGHT embodies the best kind of entertainment the city has to offer. A park, a comedy, and a picnic with friends. There's no better way to enjoy Shakespeare than this.
June 26 - August 31, 2014
Independent Shakespeare Co.
Griffith Park Free Shakespeare at the Old Zoo in Griffith Park
More information: (818) 710-6306