I don’t like to drop names, but in this particular instance, I am going to have to in order to make a point. Alan Rickman and I attended the Sunday’s closing-night performance of “Much Ado about Nothing” as part of The Public Theater’s annual Shakespeare in the Park. Just how close are Alan and I? Five rows — his seats were marginally better than mine.
I had come because, as regular readers of my work know, I am a theater junkie. A friend of a friend works at the Public, and lo and behold, I had a couple of tickets. Alan was there under similar circumstances, I believe, having starred with Lily Rabe and Hamish Linklater (Beatrice and Benedick in “Much Ado”) in a Broadway show called “Seminar” a couple of years ago. No doubt he had an invite to the closing party that followed, whereas mine was obviously lost in the mail. No matter, I had to get up and write this piece, so I would have had to leave early.
Seriously, though, the great mingling of people like Professor Snape and us Muggles is only part of what makes Shakespeare in the Park such a magical thing. It’s been running for more than 50 summers, and it is one of New York City’s glories.
The Public Theater was founded by the late Joseph Papp and dedicated to the idea that everyone has the God-given right to attend the theater. He once said, “Shakespeare should be as important as garbage collection, and I liked having a line on the budget that was close to things that were necessities to the city … That’s what I think art should be: part of the city, part of everyday life.” I agree. Now that ticket prices on Broadway have crossed the $100 line and stayed there, this is all the more important.
The Public itself is based down in the East Village not far from Washington Square and New York University. It has built itself a beautiful performance space for year-round operations, and tickets for productions cost little more than movie tickets in Manhattan. But it is the Delacorte Theater in Central Park that hosts Shakespeare, and it is a must-see event for anyone interested in the Bard, the theatre or a uniquely New York experience.
In the past, Shakespeare in the Park has featured actors such as Al Pacino, Patrick Stewart, Anne Hathaway and Philip Seymour Hoffman (to whom this summer’s season is dedicated). Last year, I caught Linklater and Jesse Tyler Ferguson in “A Comedy of Errors.” Not all of the productions are Shakespeare, either; in 2008, the 1960s musical “Hair” was revived for its 40th anniversary.
The production was exceptional, as you would expect, and despite the 3-plus hours it ran, everyone remained riveted. Our schools ruin Shakespeare (and other playwrights for that matter) by having kids read the plays in class. They must be seen, live and in-person. Then, the crowd oohs and aahs just as the people at the Globe did back when William S. was still working, and you get something you can’t at the movies or on TV — the feeling that you are there.
That said, I must quibble with Mr. Shakespeare’s adage that the play is the thing. In this case, it is the setting that makes the magic. You enter Central Park from 81st Street and Central Park West (by the Museum of Natural History), and a brief walk through the winding pathways (scout your route out beforehand) brings you to the Delacorte Theater. It is an amphitheater with reasonably comfortable seating. There isn’t a bad seat in the house, although even the front row is a bit removed from the stage. And there you are, in the biggest city in America, in its most famous park, under the stars, watching some of the best actors in the business deliver the lines by you-know-who. There are worse ways to spend an evening.
Ticketing is a problem, though, because tickets are free. You can either line up for tickets (two per person) in the morning the day of the show or take your chances with an online lottery. The tickets can’t be sold, so if someone offers you a pair, be on your guard. And there is a stand-by line for those optimists who hope for last-minute seating.
It’s a hassle, certainly, but it is worth it. Of course, the well-heeled and well-connected like my five-rows-away-friend Alan can spring for $300 to become sponsors of the Public and get free tickets.
Sadly, “Much Ado” did close this week, but there is good news. John Lithgow is playing “King Lear” starting July 22.