Volume 18 • Issue 16 | September 09 - 15, 2005

Waiting for Shakespeare: The end of the line at the Public Theater

By Rachel Breitman

Though Karen Valen hadn’t seen a production of Shakespeare in the Park for several years, she was eager to join the early morning line that snaked from the front of the Public Theatre. As she listened on her headphones to the soundtrack of a 1971 production of “Two Gentlemen of Verona,” she rhapsodized about the adaptation of the Bard’s poetry, set to a rock opera that had pulled her back after all these years.

“I stopped going to Shakespeare in the Park a while ago. It got boring, too Shakespeare-y, and it was a hassle to wait in line,” said the retired English teacher. “I haven’t been here in over ten years, but I love the score of this play. You should put on my headphones!”

While Valen, 62, reminisced with others on line about the original cast that starred Raul Julia and Clifton Davis—with then-newcomers Jeff Goldblum and Stockard Channing in the chorus— they debated whether the new performers, including soap opera stars and movie ingenue Rosario Dawson, could measure up. The public theatre has restaged the play, over 30 years after the Joseph Papp hired John Guare to rewrite, Galt McDermott to compose, and Mel Shapiro to direct an unusual version of Shakespeare’s first play, mixed with anti-Vietnam sentiment and a musical score.

At the front of the line, theatre buffs who enjoyed the original play’s multi-racial cast, calypso music, and bellbottomed dance routines, were followed by tourists and younger New Yorkers, who expected a run-of-the-mill Shakespearian recital.

Joe and Donna Mastrandrea sat in the foldout cloth chairs that they had bought years ago specifically for waiting in line for Shakespeare in the Park.

“We saw ‘The Tempest,’ with Patrick Stewart, ‘Edwin Drood,’ ‘The Golum,’ ‘Taming of the Shrew’ with Raul Julia and Meryl Streep, ‘Measure for Measure,’” remembered Donna, 55. The two village residents came not just for the theatre but also the unique culture created by those who rose early to wait on line.

“You used to only be able to wait at the Delacorte Theatre. There used to be this tall man with a deep theatrical voice selling wine. Then there was The Poet. You would give him a piece of lunch meat from your picnic and he would make up a poem,” said Joe, 57. “It really is a New York event.”

David Csontos, another Village resident, described himself as a Shakespeare veteran, but had given up on the Public Theatre’s free performances.

“I think when Joe Papp was still alive, they’d get these amazing casts, but under George C. Wolf’s direction, there were more experimental versions. They started to hire new young actresses who were totally talent-free,” said Csontos, 50. Despite his reservations, he came back for the Public’s 50th anniversary summer for the baudy comedy, the Spanish punch lines, and the ever-timely songs satirizing war-happy politicians and the price of Manhattan real estate.

The play—- originally performed by the Public Theatre’s mobile unit, which would tour the five boroughs and Central Park—- involves capricious Proteus (Oscar Isaac) professing his love for Julia (Rosario Dawson), only to leave her pregnant and alone in Verona while he proceeds to woo his best friend’s lover in Milan. The song and dance routines include hand jives, a mustached man in a tutu representing the spirit of love, and lyrics by the composer of “Hair.”

As the line slowly grew down Lafayette Street, a collection of tourists joined the Manhattanites, many making quite a lengthy pilgrimage to see this summer’s performance.

Brenda Sears, 58, and her sister Carol Hargrove, 60, came from Virginia Beach to see Renee Goldsberry, who they regularly watch on “One Life to Live.” Goldsberry, who stars as the play’s siren, Sylvia, also portrayed Nayla in the Broadway version of “The

Lion King.”

Though she was unfamiliar with the original production, Sears came to see Goldsberry strut across the stage, belt out scene-stealing tunes, and beguile the show’s male characters.

At the back of the line stood Anna Dembek, 26, visiting from Poland with her French friend Francois DeMadre, 27. They had arrived the previous day at the Public Theatre after 1:30, only to find the line already disbanded, with all the tickets distributed. Dembek naively hoped lining up an hour earlier might improve their chances. The couple looked glum as Anthony Conti, the security guard for the Public Theatre, reminded them that chances were slim for tickets this far back in line.

Unaware of the popularity of the musical and the trend towards longer lines in recent years, these out-of-towners soon found themselves out of luck when the tickets ran out in the middle of the line. Though “Verona” didn’t have a Kevin Kline or Meryl Streep, the crew of vibrant young performers had attracted new viewers, while the tenured audience members had rejoined the theatre scene knowing that this would be no sleepy reproduction with stilted dialogue.

As the crowd slowly cleared, with those left ticketless lagging a few extra minutes in hope that they could bribe the lucky ones to give up seats, Dembek and DeMadre debated how to spend the evening: Should they go to a jazz club, go to Lincoln Center, or wait at the Delacorte in hopes of getting standby tickets?

“We’ve been to other cultural things,” said Dembek, “But I had no idea this was such a big deal.”

The line will end soon, though — the show closes this Sunday.


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