Shakespeare in the Park in New York City

Let me caution you before I begin. I coached an actor for an audition who had seen All’s Well That Ends Well the night before, and he had loved it. He asked for my opinion, and I told him that my opinion was that if he had loved it, it was a great production.

So much for compliments. I will now discuss Shakespeare in the Park.


William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
FROM Perry-Castañeda Library
University of Texas at Austin
Helmolt, H. F., ed. History of the World.
New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1902.

It’s one of the great treats of the New York City summer. The Joseph Papp Public Theatre produces two productions in the 1,872-seat Delacorte Theater in Central Park. Everything about the event is tremendous. You have to get up at 5:00 a.m. (if Al Pacino or Anne Hathaway is in the production), or stay up all night, to get in line for your two free tickets, distributed at 1:00 p.m. on the day of the performance. You make friends with the people around you in line (whom you will never see again). You buy one of the strange Shakespeare Egg McMuffins when the refreshment stand opens at 8:00 a.m. Then you sit down on the asphalt walk of Central Park, lean against the wire fence, and wait — eight hours for Al Pacino, a mere four hours if there are no movie stars. This eight-hour wait gives you an intimation of what death will be like.

After you get your tickets, you stagger home — if you’re lucky enough to live near the park — to have a nap and pack your picnic lunch (praying all the while that it won’t rain). You return to the Delacorte around 6:00 p.m. with your friends, sit on the Central Park lawn and eat your picnic and then, at about 7:30, file into the amphitheatre. There aren’t any bad seats. Every single actor wears a microphone, so heaven knows you won’t miss a word. The backdrop for the theater is the grass and trees in the park, with Belvedere Castle in the distance on the other side of Turtle Pond. The sun is still shining when the big lights begin to cast a strange pale glow on the stage. The music — either live or recorded — begins to play.

And after that, God help you.

I’m not saying that all the productions are bad — far from it. In the park I have seen magic, priceless performances of Shakespeare’s plays. But I have seen some which made me want to hurl my Kentucky Fried Chicken at the hapless actors — even though I know actors have to do whatever the director says. Or what Joe Papp said, when Joe was alive and in charge. I worked for Joe, and admired him for a thousand reasons, and did not throw fried chicken at Meryl Streep, because I knew she was giving Joe the performance he wanted when she wept all the way through Isabel’s scene with Claudio in Measure for Measure. Joe hated it when that scene got laughs. There were no laughs in that scene in that production, because nobody could understand a word Isabel said. I ate my chicken, crunching up bones and all, like an angry ogre.

In the park I have seen magic, priceless performances of Shakespeare’s plays. But I have seen some which made me want to hurl my Kentucky Fried Chicken at the hapless actors…

But these park productions definitely come in a variety of flavors. In a recent production, at the dress rehearsal, the first thing that happened was that Hamlet came out — barefoot, I think — carrying a suitcase, sat down on the suitcase and recited “To be or not to be.” Moving this soliloquy from its customary place gave Hamlet plenty of time to molest Ophelia during their scene, which he did. At the end of the play Fortinbras said, “Go, bid the soldiers shoot,” at which hint his aide-de-camp drew a pistol and blew Horatio’s brains out. They splattered prettily on the flat behind him, just like that effect in The Manchurian Candidate. Friends who saw this production said to me, “Gee, I didn’t know Horatio died at the end of Hamlet.” “Arrrrgh,” I replied with my usual warm-hearted ogre’s eloquence.

Much better luck befell those of us who got in to see Twelfth Night in 2009, in which Anne Hathaway (the movie star, not Shakespeare’s wife) was Viola, Audra McDonald was Olivia, Raul Esparza was Orsino and David Pittu was Feste. Unless you’re visiting from Mars you know that the last three can sing, and there were other wonderful singers in the cast. You may not have known — I did not — that Anne Hathaway has strong musical theater credentials and when she joined in on “Come Away, Death” — well! The entire theater levitated. We all left in a pink cloud of happiness and floated home through the summer night in a trance, convinced that the composer (Dan Messé, with Gary Maurer and Steve Curtis, arrangements by Greg Pliska) was the next Mozart, and that the director was a genius. I went to this production twice. The girl who sat next to me in line this summer had seen it five times.

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