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A spooky 'Midsummer Night's Dream,' just in time for Halloween

A spooky 'Midsummer Night's Dream,' just in time for Halloween
April Fritz, left, Evan Lewis Smith, Erwin Tuazon and Tatiana Louder star in the Independent Shakespeare Company production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream." (Grettel Cortes Photography)

Independent Shakespeare Company, the group behind the popular Griffith Park Free Shakespeare Festival, has taken "A Midsummer Night's Dream" indoors, which might seem strange given that most of the play is spent frolicking in the woods under moonlight.

But wild things can lurk in interior settings, and the savagery of David Melville's production at the Independent Shakespeare Company Studio in the Atwater Crossing Arts + Innovation Complex might have some audience members wishing they could hide behind a bush.

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The layered tale, written some scholars believe for a wedding, is harder than usual to sort out because of double casting. The actors who play the mixed-up young lovers — Hermia (April Fritz), Helena (Tatiana Louder), Lysander (Evan Lewis Smith) and Demetrius (Erwin Tuazon)  — also play the Rude Mechanicals, the band of laborers rehearsing a show for the royal nuptials between Theseus (Jose Acain) and Hippolyta (Martha T. Newman).

Some editing of the text is required to accommodate the rejiggered acting logistics. The cuts and rearrangements aren't drastic, though Lysander's observation that "quick bright things come to confusion" could be applied here to the plot.

Acain, who also plays Puck, threatens to turn Shakespeare's festive comedy into a blood-soaked tragedy. The ghoulish shrieks of this impish sprite suggests a predator stalking its prey.

As Oberon, King of the Fairies, Sam Breen brings to mind an ethically challenged scientist performing brain experiments on unwitting subjects. Kalean Ung's Titania screeches in a manner more befitting the empresses of the vampires than Queen of the Fairies.

Faqir Hassan's Bottom, the Rude Mechanicals' leading man, is a scene-stealing blowhard lacking the rustic weaver's customary bumbling courtesy. Hassan hams it up rather shamelessly in "Pyramus and Thisbe," the nutty play the amateur troupe has been practicing in the woods.

The audience ate up Bottom's ludicrous overacting at last Friday's opening, but all the time spent trawling for laughs in the fifth act made me mourn the excision of some haunting images of mortality that Shakespeare emphasizes at the end of his romantic comedy. (The happiness at the close of "Midsummer" may be intense but it is too shaded by the play's events to be of the "forever after" kind.)

Melville, who's also the sound designer and composer, makes the minimalist most of his design team. Beams double as trees, with charming lighting touches by Bosco Flanagan becoming increasingly eerie as fog and madness roll in. The puppets of Bianca Kovar and John Cope, a ragtag army of creepy dolls, flesh out Titania's army of fairies.

The characters are strategically modernized — iPhones serve as props, Sarah Joy Scalf's costumes veer toward contemporary urban streetwear — but the portrayals distort as much as they exaggerate. Pungency is prized over precision. There are many lively moments in Melville's vociferous staging, but there's also a startling amount of screaming. This "Midsummer" seems timed for Halloween.

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"A Midsummer Night's Dream"

Where: Independent Shakespeare Company Studio, 3191 Casitas Ave. No. 168, L.A.

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; ends Nov. 20

Tickets: $20, $35; limited number of free tickets available

Information: (818) 710-6306 or www.iscla.org

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Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes

Follow me @charlesmcnulty

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