The 130-seat New Swan Theater plays to packed houses five nights a week at UC Irvine.

Shakespeare in OC’s best little theater

The New Swan Shakespeare Festival presents a midsummer classic

by Paul Hodgins

A strange, nautilus-shaped structure appears each summer at UC Irvine.

It’s called the New Swan Theater, where professional actors and UC Irvine students share the small stage to present Shakespeare in front of packed houses five nights a week from early July through September.

The in-the-round staging presents challenges, but the theater, in its seventh season, now feels familiar to actors and audiences.

“The staging is always very precisely laid out so as not to obscure views from any vantage point,” UCI drama professor Eli Simon said. “The actors don’t improvise the staging. But they do change according to reactions from the audience. That’s what’s wonderful about this venue. It’s so intimate that actors sense even the subtlest reactions from the audience. Everyone loves that quality.”

It takes only about a week for the 130-seat theater to take shape. But the dream of a summer campus venue for Shakespeare was four decades in the making, said Simon, who has been the Swan’s artistic director since the beginning.

“Robert Cohen, the first chair of the drama department, talked about creating a moveable outdoor Shakespearean theater even before I came here,” Simon said. “It was always envisioned as an important part of the program.”

The two-play season has drawn full houses from its first night, much to Simon’s surprise.

“I really honestly didn’t know if anyone would show up. We sold out our first season in three days.”

The theater has developed a dedicated following, and many regulars have favorite seats.

Some people like to sit in the King’s Chair, one of the more comfortable seats, situated onstage. Others prefer the higher seats because they like the view from above. “And kids love the groundlings seats,” Simon said. “You’re right next to the action.“

This year, the Swan is presenting Shakespeare’s most popular summer festival comedy, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” together with a challenging romance, “The Winter’s Tale.”

As always, Simon’s creative team avoids a Shakespearean setting in favor of another time period.

“‘Dream’ is set in the 1950s, and the costumes really reflect the era. ‘Winter’s Tale’ is set around 1900. It’s a very elegant-looking production — crisp and clean.”

The 2018 season runs through Sept. 1. The plays are presented on alternating nights. Performances are 8 p.m. Wed-Sun. Tickets are $15–$60.

For tickets or information visit NewSwanShakespeare.com or call 949-824-2787.

This summer’s Shakespeare plays are set in the 1900s.