While composing “Kiss Me, Kate,” Cole Porter penned the lyric “We open in Venice / We next play Verona,” which seems to be the game plan of this year’s edition of the New Swan Shakespeare Festival at UC Irvine.
The eighth season of Shakespeare under the stars opens in Venice, as in “The Merchant of ...” then alternates with “The Two Gentlemen of Verona.”
It all happens in a 15-ton portable, mini-Elizabethan theater on the university campus, which has been filled with playgoers since the project was inaugurated by longtime UCI drama professor Eli Simon in 2012.
“The New Swan features professional actors and students working side by side to produce scintillating Shakespeare productions,” says Simon, who is directing “The Merchant of Venice.” “Two Gentlemen” is under the direction of Beth Lopes, who recently staged “The Velveteen Rabbit” at South Coast Repertory.
Simon, who has logged three decades at UCI, sees “Merchant” as “a fascinating and dangerous play.” He’s directing it for the third time, and he addresses the anti-Semitism pervasive in the script.
“Venetian racists inhabit the play and racism is a theme, but the play is not racist,” the director says. “Shylock is condemned to a forced conversion that is deeply cynical and bankrupts Christian ideals.”
Of the play itself, Simon notes, “Every time I read it or direct it, I learn something new about human nature. I’m intrigued by Shakespeare’s interweaving of comic and tragic themes.”
Lopes, a freelance director based in Los Angeles, expresses her admiration of “The Two Gentlemen of Verona,” which she describes as Shakespeare’s first comedy.
“There are so many laughs, incredible characters and a vibe that screams ‘summer,’ ” she says. “And there’s a dog. How could you get any better?”
The New Swan festival begins July 3 with a performance of “The Two Gentlemen of Verona,” followed by “The Merchant of Venice” on July 5. The two shows run in repertory through Aug. 31 and ticket information is available at (949) 824-2787 or at newswanshakespeare.com.
Tom Titus reviews local theater for TimesOC.