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On Theater: UCI brushing up its Shakespeare

For a fellow who's been pondering whether to be or not to be since the 16th century, "Hamlet" certainly still gets around, especially around Orange County.

Shakespeare's greatest tragedy is currently being offered at three countywide venues — Costa Mesa's Vanguard University, the Festival Ampitheatre in Garden Grove and UC Irvine, where the fifth season of the New Swan Shakespeare Festival under the stars opens this weekend.

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UCI's tribute to the Bard of Avon is spotlighting "Hamlet," directed by Beth Lopes, associate artistic director of the festival, who is returning for her fourth season.

"At its heart, Hamlet is a ghost story," Lopes says. "While most of us push away the shadow of mortality, Hamlet embraces it in the form of his father's ghost. This ghost is present throughout this production, driving the action forward and forcing his son to grapple with outrageous circumstances.

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"Be ready to witness Denmark's most tortured prince transform into a man, to a murderer, to a legend."

"Hamlet" will be running in repertory with the comedy "As You Like It," updated and staged by Eli Simon, director of the New Swan Shakespeare Festival, which runs through August. "This production is set in the Depression era, with original folk music written by Alan Terricciano ... played and sung by the actors," according to Simon.

He adds, "Hopping a freight train to the Forest of Arden, Rosalind meets a wild array of characters, including Touchstone the vaudevillian clown and Jaques the melancholy drifter. Playing games of disguise and pretense, Rosalind digs deep into her lover's heart and winds up surprised by what she learns about her own."

The New Swan theater features a 16-ton movable space with flexible staging options and five unique circular seating areas.

"It's a reinvented Elizabethan theater, constructed from recycled materials, with contemporary architectural aesthetics," according to Simon. "Every seat is close to the action."

Simon also notes that Shakespeare's theater "was a theater for the people rather than an elite cultural event; thus we wish to share our work with the widest possible cross-section of our community."

"While we honor the history and classicism of Shakespeare's works, we have no intention of producing them as museum pieces," he says. "We are intent on recreating the immediacy of Shakespeare's work and examining its relevance to the 21st century."

The shows run in repertory Wednesdays through Sundays until the end of August with all seats priced at $20. For further information and reservations, call (949) 824-2787.

Looking for something new on the stage? The Orange County Playwrights Alliance will present five original one-act plays Saturday only at the Newport Theatre Arts Center.

The bill of fare includes "A Matter of Feet" by John Lane, a twist on the Cinderella story directed by Jim Marbury; "More Than the Girl," written and directed by Jordan R. Young, about a young lady who models nude to pay her rent; "Planting the Seed" by Lynn Wells Nelson, directed by Pete Taylor, involving romance in the garden; "Help" by Buddy Farmer, directed by Angela Cruz, pairing an obnoxious salesman and a quiet, reserved nun; and "Hard-Head" by Arthur Kraft, directed by Wade Williamson, focusing on efforts to abolish slavery.

The suggested donation is $6. The Newport Theatre Arts Center is at 2501 Cliff Drive, Newport Beach. Call (714) 902-5716 for reservations.

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TOM TITUS reviews local theater.

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