After a wrenching beginning to its second season, UC Irvine’s New Swan Shakespeare Festival is readying three open-air productions in its tiny jewel of a theater at the edge of Aldrich Park. Two Shakespeare classics and the modern musical “The Fantasticks” will be performed in the 125-seat space between Aug. 1 and Sept. 22.
Dudley Knight, a popular professor emeritus of drama and veteran actor, was to have played the title role in “King Lear.” But he suffered a fatal heart attack just after the company’s first meeting in June. “It was shocking,” says Eli Simon, director of the play and artistic director of the summer festival. “Dudley was one of the great Shakespearean actors of his age, and he was very, very happy to be here. He was laughing and eager to begin.”
The show is going on in tribute to Knight, who was 73. Seasoned Illinois-based actor Henson Keys, who recently portrayed the aging monarch in an Arkansas repertory production, has stepped in as Lear. He’s been busy mastering Simon’s two-hour adaptation of the original text while stage crews hammer together the portable New Swan Theater.
Simon says he and the actors are pouring their grief into the play. Death is a major force in “King Lear” – the ruler and seven others perish, including his three daughters. Several lines have resonated painfully, including Gloucester’s “O madam, my old heart is cracked; it’s cracked” and, from Lear’s opening monologue, “… while we unburdened crawl toward death.”
The production, placed in the Iron Age, focuses on man’s “brutally elemental” nature, Simon says. The actors will wear animal skins rather than royal robes, and the scenery and props, while minimal, are heavy and dark.
The setting is far different for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which will alternate with the tragedy from Aug. 1 to 31. Beth Lopes, a 2011 UC Irvine graduate who last year directed “The Comedy of Errors” as a Western for the festival’s inaugural season, has transported this year’s comedy from an Elizabethan forest to a wealthy American boarding school in the 21st century.
“Think Harry Potter meets Bottom,” Simon says, the latter a reference to the donkey with which the fairy queen Titania falls in love. The boarding school staff portray the “mechanicals” of Shakespeare’s script, and his fairies have become the institution’s gargoyles.
Finishing out the season will be a revival of the 1960 hit “The Fantasticks,” featuring music by Harvey Schmidt and lyrics by Tom Jones, including the great September love song, “Try to Remember.”
Directed by drama lecturer Myrona DeLaney, with musical direction by Daniel Gary Busby, chair of the department, the play is “extremely Shakespearean in shape,” according to Simon. He explains that, like the Bard of Avon’s works, it has complex human plot lines and does not require a lot of scenery because it travels across a span of time and various locations. “It’s a perfect chamber piece for this intimate theater,” he adds.
Veteran professional actors will mix with talented students from the Claire Trevor School of the Arts in each production. Simon says that in some ways it’s been easier to plunge into the plays this year than last, when the unique stage was being constructed for the first time and a million other details were being ironed out. “Last year we were worrying about whether we could pull it off,” he recalls. “And then we sold out in two weeks.”
But losing Knight so suddenly, he says, was “like being hit by a tornado.” Having an outdoor Shakespeare festival on campus had been a long-cherished ambition of many in UC Irvine’s prestigious drama program. “Dudley was a part of that dream,” Simon says. “We’re a resilient company, and his loss is a test of our resilience. We’re going to do what he would have wanted us to do: carry on.”