It’s taken 43 years, but I finally got really good seats for Shakespeare in the Park. Silver hair and becoming eligible to collect Social Security has its perks.
Since the summer of 1980, when I first saw Kevin Kline and Linda Ronstadt in the Pirates of Penzance, I’ve gone to Central Park’s Delacorte Theatre a little past the crack of dawn. Crowds usually gather for free tickets that will be passed out anywhere between noon and 1 p.m.
Regardless of how early I got there, I somehow always ended up planting my flag by the big rock. After having my bacon and egg on a roll and cup of Joe delivered by Andy’s Deli to the snaking line, I’d procure seats in the nosebleeds.
And yet the next year I went back for more, or as Hamlet, the titular character in this season’s performance, says, “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!“
Can you blame me? I saw Raul Julia in The Tempest (1989), Elizabeth McGovern in As You Like It (1992), Joe Morton and Billy Crudup in Measure for Measure (2001), Liev Schreiber as Henry V twice in 2003 because the first time got rained out mid-performance, and Al Pacino in The Merchant of Venice (2010).
I hit the trifecta in 2014 with Lily Rabe, Hamish Linklater, and Pedro Pascal In Much Ado About Nothing. Additionally, I was there in 2016 when an all-female cast led by Janet McTeer pulled off The Taming of the Shrew. The following year, I saw Elizabeth Marvel portray Marc Antony in Julius Caesar (who had an uncanny resemblance to Donald Trump).
I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve seen the aforementioned Kline and Sam Waterston recite the Bard.
My experience waiting in line–sometimes even more entertaining than the shows themselves with arguments over suspected line-cutting or an off-the-leash dog, and gratuitous performances by street musicians–was something I often enjoyed alone. Neil, my husband of 35 years, sat with me a few times and my 25-year-old daughter Meg, who like me, enjoys all experiences NYC, has kept me company as well.
My 28-year-old son Luke, however, has only come with me once when he was in high school. After we got our tickets, he ran off to meet his friends on the Great Lawn with the salutation, “Never again.” Later, Luke was still riled from the early morning activity and announced that he would pay someone to sit on the line for him before he’d ever do it again.
I never imagined I’d feel the same way, but when 2018 rolled around and I turned 60, I just didn’t have the emotional/physical bandwidth to schlep my sand chair and tote with provisions to pass five or six hours of my life, not even for tradition’s sake.
My been-there-done-that attitude continued for the next five years, although 2020 and ’21 probably don’t count since I wasn’t going anywhere due to the pandemic.
But this birthday marked a new chapter that has me looking ahead yet at the same time brought me back to the Delacorte because of the designated 65-and-over line replete with shade and park benches.
I’m more than happy to leave the regular line to the dewy-skinned youths who still have pigment in their hair and can sit on the ground without requiring any help to get up.
That having been said, if ever, there were a performance worth waiting for it is this year’s.
Unlike my more highfalutin’ reviewer peers who critiqued staging and inflections, I’m not there to see the best version of Shakespeare ever performed, anywhere, by anyone. I’m there for an evening of free (emphasis on free), alfresco fun with a cultural chaser as Joe Papp intended. (FYI: Catch it soon. Hamlet is the only show of the season and then the 61-year-old Delacorte will close for renovations. It will not reopen until 2025.)
For those who need a reminder, Hamlet’s father, the king, is dead, murdered by his brother Claudius, who has seized the crown and married the queen (the always impressive Lorraine Toussaint). Hamlet, played by Ato Blankson-Wood, is mourning the loss of his father, and seeking revenge. Court politics ensue. It’s also interesting to note how many phrases used in our every day language come from this play: method in madness, cruel to be kind, neither here nor there, and give the devil his due, to name a few.
Neil, a Shakespeare know-it-all, mentioned that the original version clocks in at four hours. This one is two hours and 45 minutes with one intermission. He said that even with the cuts, such as the threat of Denmark and Norway going to war because the prince of Norway is too seeking revenge; Hamlet’s father killed his father, the show holds up. I took his word for it.
Director Kenny Leon has placed the show in the modern day American south, hence no references to Denmark. The set designed by Beowulf Britt is more elaborate than many I have seen over the years. It looks like a post-earthquake suburb with Hamlet’s two-story family home tilted and buried in the ground along with a truck parked in the driveway symbolizing that life has collapsed.
This untraditional version begins with the military funeral of Hamlet’s father were members of the mostly black cast sing Bible verses. No ghost of his father ever appears to instruct revenge–only a voice-of-God, provided by Samuel L Jackson, which is channeled through the main character.
As for Hamlet’s soliloquies, Blankson-Wood delivers the Bard’s words, perhaps not as Olivier once would have, but in a cool, present day manner making him relatable, especially to young people, struggling with grief, such as those we too often see on the nightly news trying to make sense of the loss of a loved one to violence.
John Douglas Thompson ( Claudius), Daniel Pearce (Polonius), Solea Pfeiffer (Ophelia), Nick Rehberger (Laertes), and the rest of the fine cast are a pleasure to watch.
The eclectic mix of costumes styled by Jessica Jahn run the gamut from conservative military to Met ball glamour to streetwear and add to the play’s visual appeal. (Oh if only it were the ‘80s and I was able to don the pink spandex bike shorts worn in the dance number performed to the music by Jason Michael Webb.)
Perhaps in a few years when the cachet of senior citizen benefits (like 10 percent off at the supermarket on Tuesdays or reduced fare Metrocards) wears thin, I’ll look to the big rock and those on their blankets in front of it waiting for their turn at tickets and long for the days when I had the stamina to arrive at 6:45 am and bake in the hot sun for a quarter of the day. But for now, if given the choice “to be or not to be,” I choose to be for as long as I can and keep making the most of Manhattan which will always include Shakespeare in the Park.
Lorraine Duffy Merkl is the author of several novels, most recently The Last Single Woman in New York City (Heliotrope Books).