A Tale of Two Shakespeares
A tale of two Shakespeare companies: one benefiting from an intimate relationship with the well-funded, respected UC Irvine theater department and has created one of the most striking performance venues you will ever see; the other a gypsy troupe that stages its plays outdoors and passes a collection basket during intermission—after you've already paid for a ticket.
But while the New Swan Shakespeare Festival and the Alchemy Theatre may differ in terms of financial support, physical place and, some could argue, dignity (a collection basket, really?), the fact that each pulls off an enjoyable production proves that as long as you have a committed cast and space for people to stand, sit or lie down, theater can be produced anywhere.
You just have to work a lot harder outside to make it work.
This is the third year the New Swan has held court in Irvine. Though a professional company, it is closely affiliated with UCI, thanks to artistic director Eli Simon being a theater professor there. Its New Swan Theater is a 15-ton, portable, open-roofed mini-Elizabethan theater, basically a three-level cylinder made of steel and wood that can seat up to 130. With five separate seating areas, from on the floor to the balcony, each perch lends a different perspective, and the actors are never more than a few feet away.
Of course, if your cast and production are shite, it doesn't matter how innovative the physical setting is. Fortunately for Simon, who directs this production of Twelfth Night, his cast is more than capable.
Set on a 1920s Hollywood sound stage, Orsino Studios, which lends a Keystone Cops-like vibe to the proceedings, Simon's staging makes the show look and feel more accessible and intimate, but the life and vigor are supplied by his superb cast. Rare indeed is the Shakespeare production that doesn't have a weak link somewhere. This ensemble of undergrads, graduate students and outside actors is one of them. No one misses a beat, from Colin Nesmith's gloriously over-the-top Malvolio to Joshua Blair's Buster Keatonish fool Feste to Rosemary Brownlow as the suffering-in-silence Viola.
It's intimate, hilarious and a top-notch production all around.
The Alchemy Theatre, which launched a year ago, has a way to go to match the New Swan's physical accouterments. Currently, it's mounting The Taming of the Shrew at the amphitheater in Huntington Central Park and in the Fullerton College Sculpture Garden, basically a big lawn on the corner of Lemon and Commonwealth.
For the Fullerton production, there's no backstage area to speak of, no lights, seats (but for a couple of concrete benches) or amplification. It is theater reduced to its fundamentals: actors, an empty space and an audience. And what is striking about the company's Shrew is that it works in spite of all that, as well as a couple of clunky director missteps.
It's already difficult to hear at times, thanks to the traffic. Director Jeff Lowe compounds that by typically keeping his actors at least 10 feet from the audience, instead of having them come down to the first row of chairs or blankets. Another questionable choice is including a seldom-produced prologue, in which a drunken sot named Christopher Sly basically dreams the entire play. It adds length to an already long play, and while, as Lowe writes in the program, it's usually included to make the "misogynistic pill, which is Petruccio, a little easier to swallow," it's unnecessary—primarily because of the actors portraying Petruccio (Taras Wybaczynsky Jr.) and, especially, Katherine (Candice Rochelle Berge).
Yes, Petruccio starves, beats and humiliates Katherine. But he does it with such a witty flair that you actually see his endgame—which is absolutely misogynistic, but absolutely effective in breaking through Kate's defenses. And yes, Katherine does a 180-degree role reversal, beginning the play as a fiery, headstrong, independent woman and ending it as nothing more than a feminine vassal for her lord.
But here's the rub: Berge is so committed to the transformation, particularly in her final speech, that it's clear she hasn't been physically or psychically beaten into submission, but has chosen her station. There is no ironic wink to the audience from this Kate. She is wholly empowered and has made a choice, and if that choice nags contemporary liberated women and their emasculated men, then take it up with Shakespeare's ghost.
The New Swan already has a space that should be the envy of most companies in this county. Here's hoping Alchemy can say the same someday—and that it tosses the collection basket. When you're already asking folks for $30 to see your show, it seems tacky to ask for additional donations. In fact, I'll make you a deal—ditch the shaming offering, and I'll mail you a check for the ticket I was comped.
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