Laughter in the Park: “Twelfth Night,” “Feste’s Dream”

“Twelfth Night,” or What? You Will?

What is Twelfth Night?  A trifle, a bauble, a romp.

How do you handle it?  Lightly, for fun.

The Independent Shakespeare Company is doing exactly that, on the outdoor Festival Stage in Griffith Park.  And they’re doing it for free.

Danny Campbell, Andre Martin, David Melville, Julia Aks (photo: Grettel Cortes)

Danny Campbell, Andre Martin, David Melville, Julia Aks (photo: Grettel Cortes)

Twelfth Night was written to amuse audiences at Christmastide, the longest festive season in the Elizabethan year.  ISC serves it up as a feast for families, during our three-month holiday from school.

On a grassy hillside, several hundred people sit on blankets, talking, laughing and eating.  Children sit and squirm, or get up and run.  A few toss frisbees.

Before them,  on a  wooden stage, stands a rickety-looking set of walls. It has staircases at each end, connected by a balcony.  A man in ill-fitting clothes comes out, plays a ukelele (or is it a wee guitar?) and sings, while wearing … a drum set?  Yes (boom).

He leaves, and a tall handsome man in a bathrobe weeps loudly, while his servant (in a French maid’s uniform) plays a record on a gramophone.   “If music be the food of love,” he sobs, “play on!”  Adults chuckle, recognizing the line.  Children giggle at this man’s  un-grownup behavior.

The twelfth night after Christmas, in Shakespeare’s time, was a boisterous costume party.  It was all about dancing, drinking, flirting — and trading places.  In a game that went all the way back to ancient Rome, men and women swapped clothes, servants and masters dressed as each other, and anyone could get away with anything.

So Twelfth Night gets right into it.  A lovely young woman has just survived a shipwreck and landed in a strange land; she dresses up as a man and gets a job working for the local duke.  (The fellow in the bathrobe, who’s pining for the neighboring duchess.)

Alas, no sooner does our girl-in-disguise see the duke than she falls in love with him.  Oops!  A man (even a fake one) in love with a man?  Well, this may be Illyria, but the folks on the grass live in LA.  The kids don’t need it explained.  And on we go, into the (wild and crazy) night.

A top-hatted drunk named Sir Toby Belch farts loudly, and the under-12 crowd faints with laughter, knowing this is their night (and he’s their knight).  A sour-faced puritan official — they had ’em in Shakespeare’s day, too — is tricked into putting on long yellow socks and a Cheshire cat grin and prancing in front of his boss (the duchess, who’s fallen for  the girl pretending to be a boy — a girl in love with a girl — oh my!)

The ISC troupe creates all this confusion swiftly, with crisp verbal and physical clarity, making 400-year-old jokes fly like feathers (or  farts).  Director Melissa Chalsma (a company co-founder) organizes the craziness like a hidden clockwork, and makes several splendid choices — such as dressing Sir Toby like the “man about town” in the Monopoly board game.

As Feste the Fool, David Melville (ISC’s other co-founder) leads us reasonably through the madness with a sure hand, deftly mixing new comic wine with old.  Meanwhile Luis Galindo — as Malvolio, a would-be reasonable man who turns out to be a fool — gives us a villain we can resent, laugh at, and (almost) feel sorry for.

Kalean Ung’s shipwrecked Viola grabs our attention at once — and holds our loyalty throughout — with her bell-like speech and precise, light intensity.  She ably fulfills her costume’s subtle echo of the master modern clown, Charlie Chaplin.  Ryan Vincent Anderson (the lovesick Count Orsino) and Danny Campbell (as Sir Toby) take turns keeping this hot-air balloon grounded with weighty dignity — even though Orsino’s weak with love, and Toby wobbles from drink.

André Martin, as Sir Andrew Aguecheek (a role too often muddled), brings a clarity of speech and character to this natural fool that makes us love him, as he unwittingly reveals himself again and again, unable to wear a disguise.  Like Ung’s Viola, this is a performance that lights (and lightens) the way.

Speaking of light, casting light on an outdoor stage — while the sun blazes, fades, then disappears — is a daunting challenge, boldly met by Bosco Flannagan and crew.  The raggle-taggle set by Catlin Lanoff shouts “Let’s make a play!” irresistibly, and then proves, like the play itself, deceptively serviceable and sturdy.  (Love that gramophone — “His mistress’ voice”?)  Garry Lennon’s costumes fit the tale-telling perfectly, blending Elizabethan and modern idioms with ease.  (Were Viola’s Chaplin echo and Toby’s “Monopoly” suit his idea?)

The best compliment I can pay this Twelfth Night is to say that while it’s planned and performed with precision, it feels like the loose play of make-believe.   But the Angelenos (and guests) who gathered in Griffith Park paid it an even higher honor — they loved it.

Wit Without Words — “Feste’s Dream”

Six lucky Twelfth Night audiences won a marvelous extra treat.

On  three July weekends, the Invertigo Dance Company has been serving a tasty appetizer they whipped up for the feast — a 20-minute dance and movement escapade called Feste’s Dream.

Sarah Nordquist, Corina Kinnear, Louie Cornejo, Jodie Mashburn, Sofia Klass.

Sarah Nordquist, Corina Kinnear, Louie Cornejo, Jodie Mashburn, Sofia Klass.

Inspired by the wise, witty Fool, and wondering what might go on in his mind when he isn’t playing with words, director Laura Karlin and five dancers step into the world of his dreams.  When Feste (danced by Sarah Nordquist, nicely extending the play’s gender bending) is visited by a clutch of balloons, s/he cannot resist, and flies into a whirlwind fantasy.

In a lyrical interlude full of flight and lightness, Feste invites the others into the dream, where they lift one another and float, following the elusive balloons.  When the music shifts to a tango, the dancers drive and slash and spin, building to a climax when Sofia Klass leaps from the balcony into Jodie Mashburn’s arms  (gasp!) and the momentum flows her around his shoulders and down (aaah!).

The third part is highlighted by a sequence made from audience suggestions.  Before the show, at Karlin’s bidding, four viewers shouted out moments they recalled from their own dreams.  These were translated on the spot into movements — which now appear, magically woven into the dance.

At last, the balloons escape.  Feste thanks the dream figures, ready to return to sleep (where we will all dream Twelfth Night together).

While the dancers told their tale in the mute language of movement, their audience was quiet, transported.  And dozens of children sat speechless on the grass, inhaling a new love.  Invertigo’s artists, known for their energy and wit, have once again created a fresh, fun experience — one that enriches the language of our theatre.

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Twelfth Night, by William Shakespeare, directed by Melissa Chalsma.
Presented by the Independent Shakespeare Company, at the Festival Theatre in Griffith Park, 4730 Crystal Springs Drive.

Saturdays at 7:00, through Aug. 31.

Free.  (Donations welcome.)
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Feste’s Dream, by Laura Karlin and the Invertigo Dance Theatre.

Sunday, July 27 at 6:30 .

Free.  (Donations welcome.)
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NOTE:  One of the deans of LA theatre critics, Steven Leigh Morris, has used his review of this Twelfth Night to reflect upon the meaning — and survival — of stage arts in our city.  His essay can be read at <http://stageraw.com/2014/07/18/independent-shakespeare-co>. It is, like the show, not to be missed.