Review: A ‘Twelfth Night’ to outrage Shakespeare purists with delightful defilement for the rest of us

At the Griffith Park Shakespeare festival, David Melville’s staging under the stars reinvigorates the 400-year-old play.


One of the most perennially produced of Shakespeare’s comedies, “Twelfth Night” is also arguably the most accessible. Shipwrecked twins, gender-bending romance and a bumper crop of fools -- from the wise to the ridiculous -- guarantee a full-blown evening’s entertainment.

That is, of course, given the right take by a savvy interpreter who knows how to reinvigorate a 400-plus-year-old text for contemporary audiences.

As co-founder of Independent Shakespeare Co., David Melville has perfected that ability over the past 15 years and counting. Melville’s staging of “Night” for the Free Shakespeare Festival in Griffith Park is not so much an updating as a delightful defilement. Impudently modern, often just plain silly, the production melds vintage tunes from the Great American Songbook with contemporary language that would likely outrage many Shakespeare purists.


The action commences when Viola (Bukola Ogunmola), shipwrecked in Illyria, dons men’s attire and goes to work for the Duke Orsino (Gyasi Silas), who dispatches his new “manservant” to woo his would-be lady love, the Countess Olivia (Melissa Chalsma), who falls in love with the beardless “youth” in short order. And that’s just the tip of the convoluted plot, which has more subplots than, well, a typical Shakespeare comedy.

An uneven sound design sometimes blurs the dialogue, and as with any large American cast attempting Shakespeare, there are weak links. However, most in the cast are up to snuff, including Melville himself as Olivia’s shrewd fool Feste. Ogunmola’s Viola is consistently assured, while Sabra Williams’ saucy Maria, Lorenzo Gonzalez’s boozy Sir Toby Belch, and Xavi Moreno’s doofus-y Sir Andrew Aguecheek are as gleeful a group of plotters as ever pulled a prank on a gullible dupe.

The butt of their caper, William Elsman’s marvelous Malvolio is a highlight. Elsman’s loosey-goosey turn entails plenty of repartee with the audience -- as indeed, does much of Melville’s off-the-cuff staging.

By far, however, the standout of the show is Chalsma’s Olivia. Melville’s wife and the co-founder of the company, Chalsma uncovers the hidden comic rhythms in a role too often eclipsed by the broader comedic personae of the play. Simply put, she’s a howl. And that’s not just my opinion. A chorus of coyotes on a nearby hillside also yowled their approbation. A bit alarming, yes, but that’s all part of Shakespeare under the stars.

'Twelfth Night'

  • Where: Old Zoo at Griffith Park, 4730 Crystal Spring Drive

  • When: Aug. 4, 11, 14, 16, 18, 22, 24, 31, Sept. 1 at 7 p.m. Festival performances Wed. through Sun. until Sept. 1, with “Pericles” performed on nights “Twelfth Night” is off.

  • Tickets: Free

  • Info: (818) 710-6306,