A first-time visitor to the New Swan Shakespeare Festival at UC Irvine might be struck by any number of things.
The festival's idyllic location at a college campus surrounded by rolling hills and more than 11,000 trees and shrubs. Or the impressive outdoor mini-Elizabethan theater, where performances will take place five days a week for two months — for a total of 38 shows.
This year's festival, marking its fifth season, will open July 7 and will feature a comedy and a tragedy, "As You Like It" and "Hamlet," running alternately through Aug. 28, as well as a series of musical offerings on a select few Monday nights.
Eli Simon, a chancellor's professor of acting in UCI's drama department and the festival's artistic director, will direct "As You Like It," and Beth Lopes, founding company member and a Los Angeles-based theater director and teacher, will stage "Hamlet."
Actor Zac Houston, taking the title role of "Hamlet," has appeared in all of the festival's offerings over the past three years, and he and his 13 fellow cast members — a mix of professional Shakespearean actors and graduate students — will play many parts in the two plays.
"It's a wonderful challenge for actors to play a tragedy and a comedy, and it's exciting for the audience to see how they tackle the scripts," said Simon, who has worked at UCI for 26 years and staged over 100 productions at major Shakespearean festivals and regional and international theaters.
According to Simon, the portable mini-Elizabethan theater — which offers roofless al fresco seating, provides an atmospheric experience for visitors, who can watch Shakespeare plays under the stars.
The 130-seat modular theater, a replica of Shakespeare's Old Globe, was designed by festival production manager Keith Bangs.
The seating, constructed by UCI students and professionals using recycled materials, consists of two tiers, allowing guests to sit on groundling, mezzanine and balcony levels. When the summer festival comes to a close, the theater is disassembled and stored in the school's Claire Trevor School of the Arts production studios.
"There's no theater like it in America," Simon said. "It renders people speechless and is the centerpiece to our festival. It's as if you are sitting on stage because there's no fourth wall to break. It's like you're sitting around the campfire telling stories."
This year's festival will welcome guest artist Martin Kildare, who has appeared on Broadway in "The Lion King" and "A Raisin In The Sun" and toured nationally with "Mamma Mia!" Kildare, who has studied with playwright Mark Rylance at Shakespeare's Globe in London, will play the ghost of Hamlet's father as well as Duke Frederick and Duke Senior in "As You Like It."
The festival of theater will also encompass music in the form of three Music Mondays.
Kicking off the concerts will be "Shakespeare's Fool," led by entertainer and musician Jason Feddy, who has written melodies for the 10 songs Shakespeare included in his works. Feddy, a morning host on Laguna Beach radio station KX 93.5, will play acoustic guitar and sing the songs with an acoustic guitar trio.
Mariachi Las Colibri, an ensemble of women returning to the all-string instrumentation of the early 20th century mariachi tradition, will present a blend of vocal harmonies and arrangements with a contemporary twist.
And in mid-August, the New Swan String Quartet will return. The popular concert, which sold out last year, will feature Mozart chamber pieces performed by members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and other notable ensembles.
Simon, who noted that the festival attracts over 5,000 visitors, said the company is committed on every level — from hiring skilled actors and directors and reaching out to new audiences to executing sword fighting in scenes with precision and alacrity.
The fencing bout in "Hamlet" requires regimented choreography, and actors must rehearse and train for months so the scene appears "spur of the moment," Simon said.
"The audience is very close to the action, allowing us to really show the characters' innermost thoughts," Simon said. "There isn't a bad seat in the house."
What: New Swan Shakespeare Festival
When: July 7 to Aug. 28; performances begin at 8 p.m.
Where: UC Irvine, Gateway Plaza, adjacent to Aldrich Park and Langson Library
Cost: Ticket prices vary
Information: (949) 824-2787 or arts.uci.edu/tickets
Kathleen Luppi, firstname.lastname@example.org
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