The eighth season of UCI’s popular New Swan Shakespeare Festival kicks off this month with two of the Bard’s most archetypal – and most Italian – plays: “The Merchant of Venice” and “The Two Gentlemen of Verona.”
As usual, performances will be held on campus in a tiny jewel of a theater at the edge of Aldrich Park. It accommodates 132 patrons in an open-air setting akin to that enjoyed by William Shakespeare’s original audiences. For dates and ticket information, go to www.newswanshakespeare.com.
Here, New Swan artistic lead Eli Simon, who’s directing “The Merchant of Venice,” discusses this year’s stagings and the timeless appeal of a summer Shakespeare festival.
Q: How did the New Swan Shakespeare Festival come about?
A: We wanted to create a unique space in which to present Shakespeare’s greatest plays, and so we designed and built the New Swan Theater – a 132-seat, portable, mini-Elizabethan theater-in-the-round. It’s an incredible space, and given the close proximity of the audience to the actors, it allows us to investigate and deepen acting moments throughout our productions.
Q: Why do you cast the same group of actors in both plays each season?
A: We enjoy casting a company of actors in both shows. The actors love the challenge, and our audience revels in the fact that they’re featured in two rotating shows. This kind of festival casting forces our actors to stay on their toes, and for the duration of our eight-week run, they’re focused on creating scintillating theatrical choices.
Q: You stage many of these classic plays in contemporary settings. How does that change the viewer’s experience?
A: We’re looking for the most relevant setting for each play. Some are set in period, and some are updated to the 20th or 21st century. It really depends on the director’s take on the piece. Using modern settings allows the audience to experience the relevance of Shakespeare’s themes in a profound way. It hits home.
Q: What are some of your favorite festival memories?
A: I loved the owl that flew by every night during “Macbeth” (but not during “Much Ado About Nothing,” our other show that season). I love the fact that our company and our audience are reveling in these brilliantly written plays. And our Blaze It Forward night in honor of Blaze Bernstein [a 19-year-old Orange County man murdered in 2018] – we hold seminars and perform for 100 students from the Orange County School of the Arts [Bernstein’s alma mater] – has become an annual tradition for us. We honor the memory of Blaze and help kindle the fires of the Bard for high schoolers. How can you beat that?
Q: Outdoor summer Shakespeare festivals are held all over the U.S. What’s the allure?
A: It’s truly amazing. Open-air Shakespeare festivals abound in our country and overseas. People love to sit outside and watch talented actors tackle these profoundly moving works. It astonishes me that even in our high-tech world, people will actually put their cellphones away to watch and listen to the Bard.
Q: What draws you to Shakespeare?
A: I love the language and the flow of thoughts. The relevancies to our lives now. The challenges for the artists involved. The beauty of a show when it all comes together. The power of the play when the actors are on fire. There’s really nothing like it.
Q: What should your audiences expect this year?
A: This summer, we travel to Italy with two of Shakespeare’s most evocative works: “The Merchant of Venice” and “The Two Gentlemen of Verona.” These plays speak to each other in fascinating ways; both stories examine the bonds of deep friendship, the machinations of treachery and duplicity, and the power of love. Whether you’re traveling with us to Venice and Belmont or to Verona and Milan, we trust that you’ll enjoy watching these masterful Shakespearean plays as much as we’ve enjoyed preparing them for you.