An intimate, open-air Elizabethan theater has taken over UC Irvine’s Gateway Commons. The New Swan offers two-tier seating for 125 people and will host the campus’s inaugural New Swan Shakespeare Festival from Aug. 9 to 26.
This first season of what will be an annual event features reimagined versions of William Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors” and “The Merchant of Venice” that take place in the Wild West and 1930s Italy, respectively.
Originally set in the 16th century, “The Merchant of Venice” explores Jewish stereotypes and prejudices via the character of Shylock. A villainous moneylender, he is physically and verbally abused by the Christian Venetians and seeks revenge – but also pleads for compassion in the famous “Hath not a Jew eyes” speech.
“It’s a wonderfully uneasy story with comic, tragic and romantic elements,” says New Swan artistic director Eli Simon. “In 1935, anti-Semitism was on the rise in Italy, and the play takes a good, hard look at issues of religion, morals and mercy.”
The Shakespeare festival is expected to draw a diverse audience. “We wish to share our plays with the widest cross-section of our community,” says Simon, UCI drama professor and chair. “We’re intent on re-creating the immediacy of Shakespeare’s work and examining its cultural relevance to contemporary audiences.”
The Claire Trevor School of the Arts’ drama department is one of the top 10 theater programs in the country, he says, and – until now – was one of the few without a resident professional theater, which features professional actors performing alongside drama students.
That model is in place for the New Swan production of “The Merchant of Venice”; the cast includes distinguished actor and UCI drama professor Richard Brestoff, acting alums and current M.F.A. candidates.
Situated between Langson Library and Aldrich Park, the circular New Swan Theater consists of 15 1-ton sections that were transported from a production studio on Mesa Road and put together over the course of two days – with the help of a 12-person crew, two 18-wheelers, two forklifts and a crane-equipped truck.
The elegant outdoor theater was designed by Luke Hegel-Cantarella, assistant professor of scenic design; built by production manager Keith Bangs and his team; and funded through the Claire Trevor School of the Arts’ production budget, private donations, a generous contribution from Microsemi Corp., and the Focused Research Program in Medieval Studies.
It was tested out in January and February for a five-day public staging of “The Merchant of Venice” in the Claire Trevor Theatre prior to being taken apart and reassembled in Gateway Commons.
The space requires a few changes for the festival’s first play, “The Comedy of Errors,” a slapstick tale of mistaken identity.
“Our challenge is to make our world different from that of ‘The Merchant of Venice,’” says director and M.F.A. alumna Beth Lopes. “We’re adding saloon doors to the stage and bales of hay to give it a Western look.”
Tickets – $15 for adults and $9 for students and seniors – are available online or by calling 949-824-2787.
English and comparative literature professor Julia Lupton, who’s also an expert on the works of Shakespeare, will host a series of free, public talks before or after a select number of performances.