Theatre Review: Twelfth Night by Independent Shakespeare Company

Long-time readers know how much I love the Independent Shakespeare Company. They have a vibe that throws caution (and convention) to the wind. They bring an energy and interaction with the audience that is simply infectious. So the bar is pretty freakin’ high whenever I see one of their shows. And last night, I went to see this summer’s free production of Twelfth Night in Los Angeles’ Griffith Park.

High bar. High expectations.

Higher reality.

Look, I like Twelfth Night. But onstage it always–for me at least–loses gas near the end. I find the cruelty against Malvolio overdone. And I find most productions end up being dominated by that character–which makes the ending harder–or dominated by Belch (which then makes the seeming subplot seemingly overpower the main [I may need to elaborate on that later]) or by Viola (which can be OK… but this isn’t As You Like It). So to say I have issues with the play (and the productions I’ve seen) is an understatement.

But…

Director (and ISC co-founder) David Melville does some wonderful things here. He makes it an ensemble piece. Every character gets her moment in the sun. I’ve never seen a production that makes Sir Andrew (here played by Xavi Moreno) both lovable and sympathetic (usually he’s just a buffoon). Fabian, usually ignored in most productions, gets a fully realized character, courtesy of Patrick Batiste. Melville also adds a number of musical numbers and dances to the mix, all with the 20s/30s flair of the production; and as the singing fool Feste, Melville has never sounded so good vocally, in my opinion. The best decision, however, is bringing the other ISC co-founder Melissa Chalsma back to the stage (after an absence of a handful of summers) as Lady Olivia. She brings both a maturity and a girlish insecurity to the role as she comes to love Cesario/Viola (Bukola Ogunmola in an understated and centering performance).

The company’s trademark direct address to the audience is in full force, particularly in the Malvolio gulling scene. And this brings me to what really sealed the deal for me with this production. The torturous scene with a caged Malvolio (played without the usual overbearing harshness by William Elsman) near the end of the play has been shortened, and because of some judicious use of non-Shakespearean gags has been made much MUCH more palatable. And thus even his character becomes sympathetic.

It’s a joyous production, filled with music, dance, laughs, groans, piteous ahs, and a wonderful pairing off of characters at the end (hell, even Andrew and the romantically oft-ignored Antonio get their final dances).

The play runs in repertory with Pericles (directed by Chalsma…and which I’ll see in just over a week!) through September 1. I highly recommend this.

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