After a wrenching beginning to its second season, UC Irvine‚Äôs 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 ‚ÄúThe Fantasticks‚ÄĚ 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 ‚ÄúKing Lear.‚ÄĚ But he suffered a fatal heart attack just after the company‚Äôs first meeting in June. ‚ÄúIt was shocking,‚ÄĚ says Eli Simon, director of the play and artistic director of the summer festival. ‚ÄúDudley 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.‚ÄĚ
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‚Äôs been busy mastering Simon‚Äôs 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 ‚ÄúKing Lear‚ÄĚ ‚Äď the ruler and seven others perish, including his three daughters. Several lines have resonated painfully, including Gloucester‚Äôs ‚ÄúO madam, my old heart is cracked; it‚Äôs cracked‚ÄĚ and, from Lear‚Äôs opening monologue, ‚Äú‚Ä¶ while we unburdened crawl toward death.‚ÄĚ
The production, placed in the Iron Age, focuses on man‚Äôs ‚Äúbrutally elemental‚ÄĚ 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 ‚ÄúA Midsummer Night‚Äôs Dream,‚ÄĚ which will alternate with the tragedy from Aug. 1 to 31. Beth Lopes, a 2011 UC Irvine graduate who last year directed ‚ÄúThe Comedy of Errors‚ÄĚ as a Western for the festival‚Äôs inaugural season, has transported this year‚Äôs comedy from an Elizabethan forest to a wealthy American boarding school in the 21st century.
‚ÄúThink Harry Potter meets Bottom,‚ÄĚ Simon says, the latter a reference to the donkey with which the fairy queen Titania falls in love. The boarding school staff portray the ‚Äúmechanicals‚ÄĚ of Shakespeare‚Äôs script, and his fairies have become the institution‚Äôs gargoyles.
Finishing out the season will be a revival of the 1960 hit ‚ÄúThe Fantasticks,‚ÄĚ featuring music by Harvey Schmidt and lyrics by Tom Jones, including the great September love song, ‚ÄúTry to Remember.‚ÄĚ
Directed by drama lecturer Myrona DeLaney, with musical direction by Daniel Gary Busby, chair of the department, the play is ‚Äúextremely Shakespearean in shape,‚ÄĚ according to Simon. He explains that, like the Bard of Avon‚Äôs 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. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs a perfect chamber piece for this intimate theater,‚ÄĚ 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‚Äôs 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. ‚ÄúLast year we were worrying about whether we could pull it off,‚ÄĚ he recalls. ‚ÄúAnd then we sold out in two weeks.‚ÄĚ
But losing Knight so suddenly, he says, was ‚Äúlike being hit by a tornado.‚ÄĚ Having an outdoor Shakespeare festival on campus had been a long-cherished ambition of many in UC Irvine‚Äôs prestigious drama program. ‚ÄúDudley was a part of that dream,‚ÄĚ Simon says. ‚ÄúWe‚Äôre a resilient company, and his loss is a test of our resilience. We‚Äôre going to do what he would have wanted us to do: carry on.‚ÄĚ