Stage must rise before curtain

Some university parks are born with theaters, and others have theaters thrust upon them.

The latter was the case Wednesday at UC Irvine, as two 18-wheel trucks, two forklifts, a crane and a hard-hat crew united to build an old-style, circular playhouse for the university's annual New Swan Shakespeare Festival.

As construction drills whirred and a propped-up poster showed a melancholy close-up of actor Dudley Knight as Lear, faculty members Eli Simon and Keith Bangs stood inside the theater's unfinished skeleton and pointed out the missing parts: props for the different plays, entrance and exit doors, balconies where spectators can look down on the performers.

"Of course, this is the kind of set that Shakespeare wrote the play for," said Bangs, the Claire Trevor School of the Arts' production manager and technical director. "And that's part of, I think, our discovery. Our research has defined how easy it is to adapt all of these scripts to this setting, and how well it works. Because, hey, he wrote them to be performed on this kind of a stage."

Last summer, UCI's drama department created the New Swan Theater, working with $35,000 and mostly recycled materials. The venue played host to "The Merchant of Venice" and "The Comedy of Errors" the first year and will feature "King Lear" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream," plus the modern musical "The Fantasticks," beginning Aug. 1.

The rebuilding of the theater, which occupies a concrete area between Aldrich Park and Langson Library, is expected to be completed in July. The venue is taken apart at the end of each Shakespeare festival and stored in pieces until the next.

Last week, the crews laid the foundation; Wednesday marked the first day of erecting the structure. The New Swan, when finished, will offer multiple levels of seating all around — meaning that actors will often change positions to ensure that everyone gets an equal view.

In some ways, it's like taking a time capsule back 400 years. But in a few key ways, it's not.

Anyone who reads the satirical newspaper the Onion may remember an article from a few years ago titled "Unconventional director sets Shakespeare play in time, place Shakespeare intended." In the story, a director shocks the theater world by staging "The Merchant of Venice" in 16th-century Venice, having previously set the Bard's plays in the Bermuda Triangle, a high school prom and elsewhere.

Indeed, it's a subject ripe for parody. Playing at the Edwards cinema near UCI right now is the new film version of "Much Ado About Nothing," shot around director Joss Whedon's Santa Monica home. So does UCI's Shakespeare festival stick with the plays' original context?

Hardly. Last year's festival cast "Merchant" in pre-fascist Italy and "Errors" in the Wild West. This time, "King Lear" will take place in prehistoric times, while "A Midsummer Night's Dream" will move to an East Coast prep school in the mold of Hogwarts.

Simon, who directed a traditional version of "Merchant" 20 years ago as well as UCI's take last summer, said the tendency to relocate Shakespeare isn't simply a novelty act. The plays, he believes, have universal themes, and breaking them out of Elizabethan molds shows how resilient they are. In the case of "Merchant," he realized that the play's theme of (and protest against) anti-Semitism particularly fit Europe in the days before World War II.

"I think what a director does is, a director tries to distill what the central message of a play is," Simon said. "What is the play really about? And then you start to think, 'Oh, that also happened in Switzerland in the 1920s.'"

Even the New Swan Theater isn't a complete replica of the playhouses of Shakespeare's time. Simon noted that it's a miniature version and includes, among other modern improvements, actual seating for the "groundlings," who in the 17th century were too poor to secure a seat to watch the plays.

Groundlings or not, Simon stressed that everyone will get a good perspective in the New Swan's intimate setting.

"It's a beloved shape — the circle, the O," he said. "It's wonderful acoustically. It's wonderful for the various views people get of the action. Everyone kind of has their favorite spot in the theater."

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