Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Travelogue: Newport Beach

What: Shakespeare by the Sea
Where: Newport Beach
When: Saturday, July 19th 


It's funny. As a child, when I thought Shakespeare was the worst thing anyone could read. (Little did I know of Milton and Melville.) I never thought, as I grew older, I'd come to appreciate the action, the drama, and, yes, even the language. I never thought I'd seek out performances of the bard's musty 400-year-old play.

But that's what happened.

Opening Scene of Hamlet
Shakespeare by the Sea is a nonprofit organization that provides free summer performances throughout Southern California.  The word "free" caught my ears. This year, they were showing Hamlet at Newport Beach, and I was so excited I actually went out and read the play. I'd somehow missed it in high school. (Though I made up for it by reading MacBeth twice.) 

I recruited my friend Ashley for the day trip, and we packed the trunk with blankets, cushions, and an honest-to-God wicker basket complete with red-and-white checkered cloth. The play didn't start until 7:00 pm, so we had the whole day to play. Ashley closed the trunk. I whipped out my maps.


Desert Flowers
Upper Newport Bay Preserve is a boomerang bend of river ambling through the city. Natural wildlife grows tangled around the water. As we stepped out of the car, we were blasted by the scent of desert sage. The sky heavy with clouds, giving the air that just-about-to-rain aroma that mingled so pleasantly with the herbs. Swooping green ferns and cauliflower white flowers sprinkled with paprika sat along the curb.

Brightly-colored joggers, dog-walkers, cyclists, and even some equestrians trampled the tar road. We preferred to stoop into the rough trails of the overgrowth. We followed  dirt paths to the river and saw sandpipers pecking in the wet dirt. But there were also signs of human life: hobbit-hole shelter made of branches, graffiti on trees, a broken American flag. But when Ashley found a sleeping bag, we figured we'd gone too far into someone's camp and quickly headed for safer ground.

Most likely, we weren't supposed to climb the trees, but we did. We found a sociable tree with low, accommodating branches. When I sat in the center of its trunk, I felt like a forest queen upon my leafy throne. But there was also a haunted tree. That's what I called it. It looked black and dead, and its thick canopy blocked out the sun. When we stood underneath the branches, the humidity was sucked away and the temperature dropped. The wind began to blow. I wasn't scared, but I didn't feel like climbing that tree.

At home in a tree

After lunch at Veggie Grill, Ashley and I went off to look for a free beach--a more complicated undertaking first supposed. We finally came to Corona Del Mar and spent a good half hour circling a residential block, waiting for a patch of curb to open up.

Corona Del Mar
The beach greeted us with the briny, rotting smell of the ocean. Little sandflies swarmed the drying brown kelp. The shore was packed with families. As the tide pulled in, little kids ran toward the sea, and when the wave crashed, they turned and hightailed it back to dry sand.  Ashley and I played a similar game of chicken, walking the line between wet and dry, hoping stray waves wouldn't swamp our ankles.

They did. They were cold.

The houses near our car were gorgeous. They were full of windows and colors and each had a different style: mission, old Victorian, modern abstract. I stopped to take pictures, which turned out to be a good thing, since that's how we found Little Corona Del Mar, a quieter beach with its own tide pool.

It was about 4:00 and high tide, so there wasn't much to find. Even so, I picked up muscle shells with the most dazzling cobalt blue insides. (I put them back on the sand, since we weren't allowed to take anything home.) I also saw dead sea urchins in various states of decomposition. Some were moist and covered with purple spikes, others were brittle and green. All had a hole in the bottom where a seabird had sucked the life out of it.

Colorful houses by the beach


We came to Bonita Canyon Sports Park a full two hours early, mostly because we'd run out of budget-conscious activities. It turned out to be a good thing. Even though shirtless actors were still assembling the stage, a good eight rows of families were already spread out on the grass. Ashley and I staked out our patch of park, and spread out our dinner. We ate vegan cookies, cherries, a peanut butter sandwich (just me), and kettle corn. Yum.
Ashley Models Picnic Basket
Why do people still like Shakespeare? That's the question the city coordinator asked the crowd while we waited for the show. The language is almost indiscernible. But I think that can work to the play's advantage. An actor can't stand on the stage and rely on words to carry the audience through. They need to act--to move, to gesture, to scream, to cry. 

The actor who played Hamlet got that. He was all of the place in the best of ways. At the line, "for you, yourself, sir, should be old as I am, if, like like a crab, you could go backwards" he actually hunched down and scuttled back.

I must admit, when I read Hamlet, I didn't really get the main character. I found him odd and unsympathetic. Much is made about Hamlet feigning madness, but he never actually soliloquies that this is his plan. For all I could tell, he really was crazy and Claudius was secretly the hero for trying to get rid of him.

But seeing the actor's masterful performance gave me a better understanding of the character. I caught glimpses of the noble, pleasant Hamlet that must have existed before his father's death. Alone, he seemed to be grieving and depressed, but around others, he overcompensated by forcing a merriness that occasionally erupted into torrents of anger. I could see how this could be construed as madness.

Hamlet tormented by the ghost

At the end of the show, the coordinator revealed we had a crowd of 1500 people. Wow. We stumbled through the dark toward our car. Poor Ashley. For the next few hours, she had to listen to me rant about Shakespeare like a misguided fangirl.

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