New York City. Shakespeare outdoors. Two items that don’t readily combine in the mind. At least not in mine, at least not until last week, when on a warm June evening in the middle of Central Park I had the distinct pleasure of seeing Shakespeare’s romantic comedy As You Like It, written over 400 years ago.
I have long known about the “Shakespeare in the Park” performances presented annually in Central Park by the Public Theatre. “Shakespeare in the Park” and its Delacorte Theatre venue in Central Park were the vision of Joe Papp, founder of the Public Theatre. Until now my frequent travels to New York never coincided with the Central Park performances.
Even my visit last week resulted more from serendipity than planning. I was on the upper Eastside around noon and it being a pleasant early summer day I decided to walk across Central Park and then take a subway down Central Park West to the theatre district where I had a meeting. My traverse of the park took me right by the Delacorte Theatre where I saw a sign for that night’s performance. I wandered over to the ticket counter and, more out of curiosity, inquired if any tickets happened to be available. A single excellent seat was available in the center section. First glancing up to thank the theater gods, I grabbed it. An amazing aspect of Shakespeare in the Park is that the tickets are free (but you have to be in New York to get them).
The performance I saw that evening was simply magnificent, and only enhanced by the outdoor setting. Even the occasional plane overhead or dogs barking while out on their evening walks seemed assets, not liabilities. Contributing to this agreeable experience was the choice of play. As You Like It takes place in the Forest of Arden. John Lee Beatty had designed the Arden forest settings so that they seemed to emerge from the larger forest of Central Park, all contributing to the illusion that the performers and audience were meeting in a mysterious glade on a magical summer night.
The play is directed by Dan Sullivan, former Seattle Repertory Theatre Artistic Director (1981-1997). Sullivan’s cast, replete with stars such as Lily Rabe, Oliver Platt and Stephen Spinella, was uniformly excellent. Sullivan has set the play in a vague 19th century American frontier town. The wonderful music is bluegrass and was scored by none other than Steve Martin. A first-rate band performed in costume among the actors. For his short playbill entry the composer quipped: “Steve Martin (Original Music) is currently writing songs with his lyricist, William Shakespeare, who is always late.”
For many years I have been fortunate to have enjoyed Shakespeare outdoors at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. As You Like It now on in Central Park is as good as anything I’ve seen in Ashland, and I’ve seen lots of excellent Shakespeare in that southern Oregon town.
As You Like It runs through June 30. If you’re already in New York or have plans to travel there this month, try to see this play. You are bound to like this As You Like It.