New Swan and the Wayward Artist Break Free of the Bad Shakespeare Rap

Photo courtesy of UC Irvine

Theatrically speaking, summer means Shakespeare. A lot of Shakespeare. Too much Shakespeare. And all too often over the past 20-plus years, these eyes and ears have been bored to the edge of the existential abyss by directors and actors who tackle material they can’t handle—and who look and sound awful while doing it.

Which is why I’m focusing on the New Swan, which has conclusively proven capable of breaking from that constraining mode of Bad Shakespeare, and the Wayward Artist, which certainly seems to have its head—and nether regions—pointed in that direction.

Since its opening season of 2012, the New Swan Shakespeare Festival’s artistic director, Eli Simon, and his incredibly talented company of actors, designers and directors have positioned New Swan as the best Shakespeare producer in the county. Its initial selling point was its unique venue: a 160-seat, three-level, outdoor cylinder hewn from wood and steel that serves as a mini-Elizabethan theater. It is different, intimate and in-your-face (literally), as well as the coolest place in Southern California to see the Bard. But a space is just a space, and the novelty would quickly wear off if Simon and crew weren’t passionate about the most important thing in any Shakespeare production: telling the story—not only by being faithful to the text, but also by having a great deal of fun with it. Whether the shows have been kept in their original period or updated in era or setting, any New Swan production I’ve seen has yet to fall flat. The company is smart and more than capable of bringing the Shakespearean vocabulary and delivering his poetic profundities, as well as being earthy, alive and, frequently, electrifying.

That is even true for one of Shakespeare’s most overlooked romances: The Winter’s Tale. While billed as a romance by scholars, it’s more of a tragedy that ends happily. Call it a tragicomedy. At least in the first act, it weighs in big on the tragedy, as the delusions of a mentally imbalanced lead character, Leontes, the King of Sicily, result in the death of his young son; attempted infanticide; and the imprisonment and subsequent quasi-death of his pregnant wife, Hermione.

It’s one of Shakespeare’s later plays, and some scholars have suggested the playwright was suffering from depression at the time and tried to write his way out of it by slapping happy endings on plays that deal with heavy shit. True or not, it’s difficult to inject much levity into a play that traverses such turbulent ground, and to her credit, director Beth Lopes doesn’t force the issue. Instead, she keeps things focused on the story, with some nice directorial flourishes, such as positioning Hermione as the character of time to finish the first act, foreshadowing the supernatural shenanigans to come. The cast—from prime actors such as Jesse Sharp (Leontes), Anica Garcia-Degraff (Hermione) and Sean Spann (the King of Bohemia) to the 19-person ensemble that includes Thomas Varga as a Keystone Kops-like bear—never misses a beat. If this is one of Shakespeare’s plays that you are mostly unfamiliar with, this rendition is a perfect opportunity to acquaint yourself with it.

The other play in repertory (with the same actors) is one of Shakespeare’s most familiar: A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Simon, who directs, says it is a gender-shifting production set in the 1950s.

Meanwhile, you have just one weekend to familiarize yourself with a new theater company that has surfaced at the 75-seat theater in the Grand Central Arts Center in downtown Santa Ana. The Wayward Artist is a group of (mostly) Cal State Fullerton professors and alumni who have started out with anything but a whimper. Artistic Director Craig Tyrl calls its production of Twelfth Night: A Galactic Farce “bawdy, highly irreverent, sexually charged and a ridiculously funny adaptation of Shakespeare’s original.” For reasons that may be self-evident, Tyrl and company are keeping what Shakespeare’s play is being used to parody on the down-low (let’s just say rebels and a mean empire), as there are some entertainment conglomerates that aren’t shy about using their deep pockets on anything that might be construed as cribbing from their lucrative intellectual properties. But he promises the show is “accessible, fresh, fun and innovative in a way I think Shakespeare originally intended.”

That sounds intriguing, but wait until you get a load of the troupe’s Aug. 11 production: a staged reading of a new tragicomedy by Kyle Cooper and Ryan O’Connell, Fatty, a musical about the life and times of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. Sign us up!

The Winter’s Tale and A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the New Swan Theater, UC Irvine, 4002 Mesa Rd., Irvine, (949) 824-2787; Wed.-Sun., 8 p.m. Both shows run in repertory through Sept. 1. $15-$64.

Twelfth Night: A Galactic Farce at Grand Central Arts Center, 125 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (657) 205-6723; Thurs.-Fri., July 26-27, 7:30 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 7:30 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. $20-$25.

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