Along with a thousand or so of their closest friends, a high-octane Independent Shakespeare Company ensemble opened the Griffith Park Free Shakespeare Festival’s fifth season with a highly accessible “Twelfth Night” that takes its buoyancy and styling cues from a 1920s music hall.
With more than a passing thematic wink at “Downton Abbey”-esque interplay between the aristocratic and servant classes, artistic director Melissa Chalsma’s staging sports the company’s signature combination of freewheeling irreverence and classical precision that makes Shakespeare novices and devotees alike feel at home.
Outfitted as a one-man band, David Melville’s banjo-strumming Feste the Clown transitions the expansive Old Zoo lawn from picnic to theatrical environs with an opening vaudevillian mix of song and satire.
As with all Shakespearean fools, Feste’s outsider perch affords the most clear-sighted commentary on the romantic foibles of the OCD-stricken principals: Count Orsino (Ryan Vincent Anderson), pining for unresponsive Countess Olivia (Claudia de Vasco), and shipwrecked Viola (Kalean Ung), in the guise of a servant boy, inadvertently becoming the object of Olivia’s passion while wooing her on the Count’s behalf (despite her own crush on him). Deft slapstick in the service of story abounds as they betray their unconscious desires — as when in the midst of the Count’s pining for Olivia his hand wanders up Viola’s thigh.
Equally engaging — and just as double-edged in its painfully comic truths — is the subplot in which conspirators highborn (Danny Campbell, André Martin) and low (Bernadette Sullivan, Julia Aks) inflict humiliating payback on Olivia’s pompous steward, Malvolio (Luis Galindo).
The Independent Shakespeare Company regulars have honed a distinctively naturalistic way of rendering Shakespeare’s verse without thespian affectations, further broadening their appeal; with last season’s attendance topping 43,000, they’ve evidently had greatness thrust upon them.
“Twelfth Night,” Old Zoo at Griffith Park, Los Angeles. 7 p.m. all dates, check website for repertory schedule. Ends Aug. 31. Free. (818) 710-6306 or www.iscla.org. Running time: 3 hours.