Shakespeare Invades OC This Summer

For whatever reason, summer is the time when Shakespeare holds court in many theaters. There’s Shakespeare in the park, Shakespeare by the sea, Shakespeare indoors, Shakespeare outdoors and—rumor has it—even in the bowels of hell, where Satan likes to see a little Bard during the warmer months to break up the monotony of watching demons repeatedly tearing out the livers of the damned.

Closer to home, Shakespeare Orange County recently finished its much-acclaimed production of Hamlet in Garden Grove, while the traveling troupe Shakespeare By the Sea (www.shakespearebythesea.org) will mount productions of Othello in Santa Ana’s Birch Park, as well as in Long Beach, Whittier, Seal Beach, Laguna Niguel, Aliso Viejo and Irvine in August. And the Long Beach Shakespeare Co. opens Much Ado About Nothing on Aug. 26 (www.lbshakespeare.org). Plus, there’s an ample dose of Shakespeare in the Maverick Theater’s currently running adaptation of the western classic The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

But the Shakespeare that ought to get the pulse of any Shakespeare-lover truly pulsing can be found in the county’s most unique theater: the New Swan, a portable, 16-ton, three-level, steel-and-wood cylinder stationed on the campus of UC Irvine that seats up to 130. A mini-Elizabethan theater, it’s the most intimate and immersive way to experience a Shakespeare play in the region. Now in its fifth season, the troupe, helmed by longtime UCI theater professor Eli Simon, has cultivated a niche for staging bold new takes on the Bard without compromising the dude’s language and literacy.

On tap this year is perhaps the most canonical of Shakespeare’s canon, Hamlet, and the evergreen comedy As You Like It, which gave the world the Forest of Arden and the phrase “All the world’s a stage.” According to Simon, both productions have received enthusiastic standing ovations, something he hasn’t seen before at New Swan productions, and both have fresh spins.

Directed by Los Angeles-based freelance director Beth Lopes, this Hamlet focuses heavily on the ghost of the play, Hamlet’s father, whose apparition sets the tragic events in motion. But it also features the ghosts of all those killed in the play (there’s a bunch of them) and how “they motivate the action and inform the living characters,” Simon explains. It’s a briskly paced production, clocking in at around an hour and 45 minutes.

As You Like It, which is directed by Simon, features original folk music courtesy of fellow UCI professor Alan Terricciano and is set during the Great Depression. The play begins at Oliver’s Meat Packing Plant in Chicago, and the characters ride the rails to this Arden, seeking to re-invent their lives just as Shakespeare’s characters did. “We just felt the politics of the play and the social upheaval of the Depression fit,” says Simon. “You’ve kind of got this gangster world, where you have the haves and the have-nots, and just like the characters [in the original] go into the woods to restore their lives, for us, it’s a hobo encampment where the folk musicians are really prized.”

Though both have a different focus or setting than traditional Shakespeare, each remains faithful to the original text and intent. “We’re a 21st-century audience, so we see the plays through the lens of our times,” Simon says. “What’s remarkable about Shakespeare’s plays is that they have retained their relevance for over 400 years now. They are as socially and politically potent now as they were when they were written.”

As previously mentioned, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance also traffics in Shakespeare. It’s the main text used by Ransome Foster, an East Coast tenderfoot making his way west to teach the shit-for-brains residents of Two Trees, a town on the edge of the prairie in 1890, how to read. Fans of the film might be disappointed, as there is no John Wayne or Jimmy Stewart in Jethro Compton’s adaptation of Dorothy M. Johnson’s short story. The script is largely meh, Brian Newell’s direction is uninspired, and the lack of levels in the actors playing the central love interest, Shane Cullum and Mackenzie Greiner, contribute to a lackluster evening. The costumes are cool, though (Hats! Boots! Guns!), and there are some fine supporting performances from Ryan Paregien as Bert, Monty Montgomery as Reverend Jim and, in particular, Paul Jasser as the black-hatted villain, Valance (he splits the role with Enrique Munoz Jr.). Valance does a stellar job in limited stage time as the steely-eyed ruthless embodiment of the “free” West.

Hamlet and As You Like It at the New Swan Shakespeare Festival, Gateway Commons, near Langson Library, UC Irvine, 4002 Mesa Rd., Irvine, (949) 824-2787; newswanshakespeare.com. Both plays in repertory, Wed.-Sun., 8 p.m. Through Aug. 28. $25-$59.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance at Maverick Theater, 110 E. Walnut Ave., Fullerton, (714) 526-7070; www.mavericktheater.com. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 6 p.m. Through Aug. 14. $10-$24.