The best Shakespeare is no Shakespeare. No, not a moratorium on his work, but rather when you get so immersed in a Shakespeare play that you forget you're watching Shakespeare and find yourself watching a compelling story unfold.
And that, along with the coolest theatrical venue in Orange County (a 160-seat, three-level, outdoor, mini-Elizabethan theater fashioned into a cylinder from wood and steel), is what makes the New Swan Shakespeare Festival so refreshing. Now in its sixth season, the festival, which includes two plays and seminars and workshops throughout the summer, is living, breathing proof that a capable team of designers and actors can not only create a production faithful to Shakespeare's text, but also make it as fun as doing a marathon in a golf cart driven by a naked porn star.
Founder and artistic director Eli Simon, who is also a theater professor at UC Irvine, realizes that the most important thing in Shakespeare isn't the plot, character or the setting; it's telling the story. Whether set in period, such as its production of The Tempest this season, or updated in terms of time and setting, as its 1980s-spin on The Taming of the Shrew, the only thing sacred is the story. The shows are faithful to Shakespeare's text, with a company of professional alumni and students delivering his language fluently and clearly, but they are given just enough breathing space to imbue the lofty poetics with an earthy sensibility that springs less from the soul than from the loins.
The resulting productions absolutely relate Shakespeare's timeless tales, but in such a fun and accessible way that something near-miraculous is achieved: You forget occasionally that you're watching 400-year-old iconic plays. Instead, you're watching characters that, while they do speak a bit weird, feel fresh, alive and relevant.
The plays are presented in repertory, which means that the same cast performs in both plays, usually one night after the other. Simon directs The Tempest, a play that, while never dormant for too long, seems particularly in vogue these days. The Royal Shakespeare Co. is currently producing it in London, the Teller-Tom Waits Dust Bowl mashup always seems to be playing somewhere in the U.S. (including South Coast Repertory a couple of seasons ago) and, along with this UCI show, it's also currently running as the first play of the 2017 Shakespeare/Summerfest Orange County in Garden Grove (more on that in two weeks).
While the cast is wearing kind-of-contemporary clothing, this is still The Tempest that anyone familiar with the tale will recognize. A banished former duke of Milan, Prospero (a spellbinding Greg Ungar, who is both melancholic and filled with indignation) lives on an undiscovered island somewhere in the Mediterranean with his daughter Miranda (a captivating Anita Abdinezhad) and a brutish native named Caliban (a writhing, agile Thomas Varga). As fate would have it, a ship carrying the dastardly villains who banished him is sailing near the island, and Prospero, who has spent his exile learning magic, commands his servant, Ariel (a radiant and menacing Grace Theobald), to whip up a storm to drive them to the island. Lots of other stuff happens, but the highlight, at least in this production, along with Prospero's journey from revenge to mercy, is the comic antics of two drunkards, a puppet-wielding Trinculo (Ryan Imhoff) and his friend Stephana (a hilarious Chynna Walker). Stephana gives Caliban some alcohol that immediately makes him revere her as his God. Caliban, a victim of colonial oppression (as many have opined over the years), entreats Stephana to assassinate Prospero, and the stage is set.
Imhoff delivers a towering performance as Petruchio in the punk rock-tinged The Taming of the Shrew, another play that rarely falls off the radar. One of the most hotly debated plays in the Bard's canon (is Petruchio really a misogynist? Is the sharp-tongued Kate whom he beats, starves and verbally abuses really in adoration of him at play's end?), director Beth Lopes stages the key moments as written. There's no attempt to whitewash the abuse; but rather than a feminist's worst nightmare, the interaction between Imhoff and Grace Morrison's Kate is handled so well that instead of feeling like a woman being emotionally beat down into submission, the two seem to be complicit partners at play's end, a kind of strong-willed outsider couple bucking society's conformity.
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Both plays, which run a little more than two hours plus an intermission, feature an imaginative and talented ensemble that knows how to deliver the highs and lows of Shakespeare's language. They are eminently watchable, entertaining and, occasionally, even touching. It feels less like watching people do Shakespeare because it is Shakespeare, and actors must do Shakespeare—but because they want to. And they are having a hell of a good time doing it.
The Tempest and The Taming of the Shrew at New Swan Theater, UC Irvine, 4002 Mesa Rd., Irvine, (949) 824-2787; newswanshakespeare.com. Wed.-Sun., 8 p.m. Both shows in repertory through Sept. 2. $15-$55.