Independent Shakespeare Co. began performing for free in Los Angeles at Barnsdall Park after partnering with the Department of Cultural Affairs in 2003 and according to their website, their first free festival was “attended by 14 people and a dog.”  By 2009 they had outgrown the space that was available at Barnsdall and moved to Griffith Park in 2010 at the site of the Old Zoo, far removed from the sounds of traffic and the lights of the city.  There’s the word the City of Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks will break ground this fall to build a permanent stage, something any company who has persevered the way they have for more than fifteen years more than deserves.

Xavi Moreno (Andrew), David Melville (Feste), Lorenzo Gonzalez (Sir Toby) in Twelfth Night. Photo Credit: Grettel Cortes Photography.

Twelfth Night is their first show this season.  Directed by company Co-Founder and Managing Director David Melville [Melissa Chalsma is Co-Founder and Artistic Director] the show is inspired by if not set in the 1930s with Unit Set Design and Scenic Design by Natalie Morales that is quite stunning in its elegant simplicity.   Melville has added seven songs that range in date from the late 20s to the late 40s and an original rendition of the final song from the play The Rain it Raineth Everyday (set to music by Music Director and Composer Dave Beukers) that are the root of some of the loveliest moments in the play.  He opens with On A Slow Boat To China with Curio and Valentine performing like two nightclub singers in any movie from Hollywood’s Golden Age to get us all in the mood.  Melville plays guitar while Beukers accompanies on piano and company member Brent Charles backs them on drums.

In spite of the shift in the time period, this is still Illyria, a place where love makes people do crazy things (as love is wont to do).  Bukola Ogunmola is Viola, the shipwrecked twin to Sebastian (Kelvin Morales) who makes use of his clothing in a trunk she has dragged to shore to pose as a eunuch for Orsino, who is played by Gyasi Silas with a range of emotions we don’t always get to see in the character.  When he asks Feste (David Melville, a masterful jester who makes Shakespeare sound easy) to play Stardust, Silas is stoic at first then breaks down into moving [yet comical] tears, which prompts Ogunmola to join him in a dance that is choreographed by Katie Powers-Faulk to show off the abilities of both actors while affording them a moment to fall in love, Hollywood-style.  The moment where Viola remembers herself (himself?) and has to gently slip out of a romantic dip is a beautiful beat that read all the way to the top of the hill behind me if the sympathetic laughter that echoed back is any indication.

William Elsman (Malvolio)
Background: Lorenzo Gonzalez (Sir Toby), Xavi Moreno (Andrew). Photo Credit: Grettel Cortes Photography.

Melissa Chalsma is Olivia, and her understanding of just how awkward it is to be rebuffed by what appears to her as just another young boy is charming, especially when Viola first leaves her and she chides herself for asking “What is your parentage?”.  It’s a moment straight out of every romantic comedy where the heroine usually gets to plant her face in a pillow and scream or call up a best friend for commiseration drinks.  Olivia doesn’t get to relax however for the extremely uptight and quite magnificent William Elsman’s Malvolio is the attempted killer of all things fun, including her budding romantic interest.  When he falls for the letter that he supposes is from Olivia, he swaps his black suit and white gloves for Lederhosen, and yellow stockings ‘cross-gartered’ and smiles like a lunatic.  He could fall into the trap of becoming the villain but even when he is visited by Feste in the guise of a doctor [instead of a curate] with ink blots and improv to match and even when he discovers the deception that caused all of his woes, he is not nearly as full of thoughts of bloody revenge as he could be and in fact comes back to join everyone in the final song with an air that is more humbled than harmed.

Sir Toby Belch (Lorenzo Gonzalez) and Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Xavi Moreno) provide a great deal of comic relief, often proving themselves more the fool than Feste ever could be.  Maria (Sabra Williams) comes off as being the only scheming brain in the bunch, a factor that doesn’t necessarily compute when we later watch Sir Toby pit Viola and Andrew against each other in the duel of fear that results in no win, or loss – how does he comes up with that idea and to what end, we wonder with this power dynamic.  When Antonio (Hao Feng) arrives in Illyria with Sebastian then later mistakes Viola for him during that duel, he faces off with Sir Toby in a unique way.  Rather than leap right to swordplay, Feng executes a series of gestures lifted out of martial arts films, which Sir Toby imitates in his drunken manner until Feng takes it up a notch and shifts his ‘come and get me’ warrior stance into a full split.  It’s surprising and we don’t even miss the stage combat one bit.  Melville doesn’t overlook Antonio’s overt love for Sebastian – an aspect of the play that gives some people pause.  Instead, he fully embraces it and lets Antonio and Andrew give each other the once over before the play is over and there’s something very satisfying in that choice.

Kelvin Morales (Sebastian), Melissa Chalsma (Olivia). Photo Credit: Grettel Cortes Photography.

Admittedly, there are moments where the pace lags and it’s hard not to notice that Viola reads Orsino’s letter to Olivia just moments after explaining that she took the pains to memorize it.  Sometimes Andrew and Sir Toby fall into such a comic display, it can distract from the narrative thread.  But then there is the choice to hand Malvolio’s letter to an audience member and ask them to hold it up and get his attention.  Two different volunteers are forcibly enlisted and both times Elsman denies it, telling them to take it to the post office or hand the donation over to management.  At intermission, the cast remains on stage and audience members are welcome to join them there to talk about whatever they like.  And there’s that memorable duet between Orsino and Viola and the obvious camaraderie not only amongst the cast but between them and their audience.   All told, no one in Los Angeles is doing this kind of work with the focus on diversity and community involvement that this company has had since its inception.  We are lucky to have them.

Carene Rose Mekertichyan plays Valentine, Darian Ramirez plays Curio, Patrick Batiste plays Fabian, and Brent Charles plays the Sea Captain and Priest.  Written by William Shakespeare.  Costume Design by Lia Wallfish.  Maeve Kiely is the Assistant Costume Designer.  Scenic Design by Natalie Morales.  Lighting Design by Bosco Flanagan.  Jamir Muñoz is the Sound Assistant.  Nikhil Pai is the Voice & Text Coach.  Jenny Park is the Stage Manager.  Giselle Vega is the Assistant Stage Manager and Hector Aguirre is the Assistant Stage Manager Intern.

For more information about the company, check out their website: http://www.iscla.org/

This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.