Come for the cupcakes, stay for the play. The Griffith Park Free Shakespeare Festival offers tasty concessions, but its onstage revels serve up plenty of eye candy.
The three-show summer festival from the intrepid Independent Shakespeare Co. features “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “The Winter’s Tale,” both now playing, as well as “A Comedy of Errors,” which opens Aug. 2. With its troupe’s lack of pretention and strong vocal skills, ISC manages to be fresh without gimmickry, loose without becoming (too) sloppy.
Outdoor Shakespeare is its own beast. Without a roof, most productions lose the focus that allows a production to mine the bracing truths of the text. But fresh air adds narrative urgency: Actors have to hold the attention of an audience free to eat, drink, snuggle and text during that lengthy monologue on Athenian flora. You end up with Shakespeare that feels somewhere between sketch comedy and pageant. It’s broad, but it doesn’t leave anyone behind.
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” suits the freewheeling style of ISC, with its shamelessly effective physical comedy. Director Melissa Chalsma (also playing Titania) throws in some good visual jokes: Rude Mechanical Flute (Xavi Moreno) checks the lunar calendar on his iPhone, and the Bergomask at the end of “Dream” is a booty-shaking dance-off between rival lovers Lysander (André Martin) and Demetrius (Erwin Tuazon).
The fairies sport a Steampunk meets Elizabethan look, courtesy of costume designer Garry Lennon, and the ensemble adds atmosphere by vocalizing the sounds of the enchanted forest. (Lovelle Liquigan stands out as a nimble, sensual Peaseblossom.) And Danny Campbell charms as Bottom, the rowdy weaver who might benefit from a few acting for camera classes.
The haunting “Winter’s Tale” begins with an unlikely sight in Griffith Park -- a snowball fight. We’re in chilly Sicilia, where play masks rage.
King Leontes (David Melville) suspects that the true father of the royal children is his best friend, Polixenes, King of Bohemia (Luis Galindo). In a fury, he plots murder, bringing down disaster on his kingdom for a generation. It takes the accidental intervention of a Bohemian shepherd and his son (Campbell and Martin again, having a ball) to set things right.
Melville makes for a somewhat nasal Leontes, but he’s appropriately reflective in the second half, which features one of the most moving scenes in Western drama. Ably directed by Sanford Robbins, “Tale” is about the miracle of second chances, and the production feels more emotionally satisfying than the giddy but thin “Dream.”
ISC offers more than a free dose of the Bard. The company has a canny sense of the primal relationship between actor and audience, and its shows delight in pure theatrical communion. Shakespeare outdoors means we don’t have to feel so serious about these masterpieces; they’re just sturdy stories of love and danger that still hold us, all together in the dark, surrounded by forests and wild beasts. Or at least some aggressive bees, in search of red velvet cupcakes.
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Griffith Park Free Shakespeare Festival, The Old Zoo, 4730 Crystal Spring Drive, Los Angeles. Ends Sept 2. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes. “The Winter’s Tale.” Ends July 29. Running time: 3 hours. See website for performance schedule. Free. Contact: (818) 710-6306 or ww.iscla.org.