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Why I'll see anything by the Bard at the Delacorte
As a self-professed theatre lover, I have an embarrassing confession to make: I don't always love seeing Shakespeare. I've read his plays enthusiastically, I adore his language, and I have a deep appreciation of his characters. (My dog was named Caliban.) But when I watch the Bard onstage, sometimes I find myself yawning or even dozing off -- except when I'm immersed in a magical night at the Public Theater's Shakespeare in the Park. It doesn't matter whether it's a comedy, a tragedy, or a history play, I'm always wide awake and riveted throughout the entire show.
Picture this: Dusk is falling and the lights rise on the outdoor amphitheatre. A hint of illuminated skyline in the distance reads as an arc of twinkling stars. A bird dips down to check out the crowd. The wind rustles and then a gust blows back a curtain exposing a stagehand. A raccoon sneaking behind the stage momentarily steals the spotlight. Or the sky rumbles and the clouds burst open and the actors and the audience need to take a literal rain check. Talk about drama! Alfresco theatre delivers a mix of the rehearsed and the unplanned. It's not just watching a play; it's living in a theatrical moment when anything can happen next. And it's thrilling.
Perhaps the experience also feels heightened because of the enormous effort I put into getting tickets over the years. Historically, we groundlings snagged seats with a little luck and a lot of sweat equity, though waiting in line was part of the fun. When I was a kid coming in from the suburbs, Shakespeare in the Park was a family summer tradition which involved just as much planning, packing, and sunscreen as going to the beach. Since the line for tickets usually started forming around 8 in the morning, my parents would pack Frisbees and picnic lunches. My mom was a big talker, and she'd usually make friends with others die-hard theatre fans on the line by chatting about the Broadway shows they'd recently seen. Costumed buskers would croon at the crowd accompanied by lutes and shimmering tambourines adorned with colorful ribbons. Or, my favorite, a troupe that moved up and down the line with a simplified puppet version of the play told in a mix of modern and Elizabethan slang.
In high school and college, my theatre-loving friends and I came without our parents and secretly added wine to our picnic basket. We made our own friends in line, and wondered if we'd get good seats. (Though really, there are no bad seats.) Looking back, it's amazing how many heavy hitters we were privileged to see: Raul Julia and Meryl Streep in The Taming of the Shrew, Morgan Freeman in Coriolanus, Jeff Goldblum and Michelle Pfeiffer in Twelfth Night, the list goes on and on. When I was young, the language sometimes went over my head, but I was still mesmerized by its music not to mention the actors and the atmosphere.
Sure, I miss those long, lazy line days. But as a working mom of two, I don't have the luxury of that kind of free time anymore. Thanks to the Internet, I don't need it; I enter the digital ticket lottery. (If you are tenacious, you will get tickets. We do!) Just this past June, my family and I saw director Phyllida Lloyd's all-female The Taming of the Shrew, which had been one of my first Shakespeare in the Park experiences back in the day. It was a windy night. Clouds swirled in the charcoal sky and the surrounding tall pines swayed against the skyline. Hats and scarves flew off the performers, and the life-size statue of the Madonna suspended above the stage twisted ominously in the breeze. I'm sure I wasn't the only one who worried it might fall! Judy Gold as Gremio even bemoaned the weather in her mid-play monologue, saying God must be horrified by the all-female cast -- just look at the storm "He" was brewing.
New York summers can be humid and sticky and stressful. Part of the magic of Shakespeare in the Park for me and so many others is that we feel like we're escaping from the urban grind and grime. I think of these theatrical excursions as part of my summer survival plan -- an evening break that feels as restorative as a long weekend. After the show, when I’m walking to the subway on Central Park West, I’m always a little more centered and a lot more relaxed.
This week, Troilus and Cressida started previews. It was one of my favorite Shakespeare plays in college. I wonder what surprises the production will bring. I'm sure I'll find out because I'll keep entering that digital lottery until I'm back at the Delacorte, feeling like an excited kid on the first day of camp.
What's your favorite Shakespeare in the Park memory? Tell us in the comments!
Top image: The Delacorte Theater in Central Park.