Over the years, I’ve grown particularly fond of trekking to Central Park twice each summer for the NY Shakespeare Festival’s productions in the park. I have some strong, bracing memories of the productions I’ve seen there over the last 30 years, and of the actors and actresses who performed in them.
I was reminded of the productions recently after a performance of this year’s first offering of “Twelfth Night”, starring the lustrous Anne Hathaway. I sat there enraptured over this current “Twelfth Night”, beautifully directed by Daniel Sullivan and featuring some of NY’s finest character actors in its cast, in particular, the wondrous Hamish Linklater giving one of the goofiest, finely calibrated Shakespearean performances I’ve seen in many a moon. Most of you might know Hamish from the CBS sitcom, “The New Adventures of Old Christine”, where he plays Julia Louis-Dreyfuss’s brother, but if you’ve only seen Hamish on television, well, believe me, you haven’t really SEEN Hamish. He has years of Shakespeare training under his tunic, and he gets to show it off in this production, in spades. He is superbly funny and gets able support from Jay O. Sanders, David Pittu, Jon Patrick Walker, Julie White and the others in the classiest romp seen in Central Park for a long time.
Could it really be only last summer that “Hair” was playing outside and free(in all senses of the word) in the park? Yes indeed it was last summer, and now “Hair” is packing them in on Broadway 8 times a week with almost the same cast as last year’s production. And what was the other production last summer, the one that preceeded “Hair”? Well, that would have been the Oskar Eustis production of “Hamlet”, starring a young actor we’ll all be seeing a whole lot of in the coming months. That actor is Michael Stuhlbarg, who has two big projects coming atcha real soon. The first is the next Coen Brothers film, opening in October, which is a modern retelling of the story of Job, set in Minnesota in the radical 60’s. Stuhlbarg stars as a professor beset by modern day plagues, one of which is an older brother played by Richard Kind. And to add the quirky Coen Brothers touch, the first 20 minutes of the film are entirely in Yiddish. Some thing to look out for, no doubt. Then, sometime in 2010, Mr. Stuhlbarg will be co-starring alongside such notables as Steve Buscemi, Michael Shannon, Dabney Coleman, Paul Sparks, Dana Ivey and Stephen DeRosa in the new HBO series, “Boardwalk Empire”, a look at Atlantic City starting on the eve of Prohibition, the first episode of which is directed by Martin Scorcese. “Boardwalk” is already being touted as the next “Sopranos”, which will be a tough nut to crack, BUT some of the same talents who were behind the scenes on that saga will be performing similar duties on this new series, whose first season covers the period berween the start of Prohibition to the election of the new President 8 months later. You see what starring in Shakespeare In The Park can lead to?
Over the years, I’ve seen Kevin Kline in “Richard III” , “Much Ado About Nothing” AND “The Pirates of Penzance”, for instance. I’ve seen the late Raul Julia twice in “Othello”, once with Richard Dreyfuss as Iago and once with Christopher Walken in the same role. I’ve seen Meryl Streep in “Measure for Measure”, “The Seagull” and “Mother Courage”. Oh yes, Kevin Kline was in that one as well. I’ve seen a retooling of an opera they called “Non Pasquale”, which was beyond bizaare, in fact, it was too too bizaare for words. I’ve seen Randy Quaid stomp around caked in mud in a production of “The Golem”, and I stayed awake! I’ve seen the magnificent Jake Weber and Elizabeth McGovern in what remains the best version of “As You Like It” I’ve been witness to. I auditioned for a new musical that was to play in the Park with David Bowie as its star, something called “The Death Of Von Richthofen As Witnessed From Earth” by Des MacAnuff, which never got to the Park, but was eventually done inside, downtown, without me or David Bowie and quietly vanished. But I did get to audition with a young, virtually unknown Kevin Bacon, who sang the least memorable version of “Moondance” I’ve ever heard as his audition song. (I sang “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”). I’ve seen Morgan Freeman and Tracey Ullman in “Taming of The Shrew” and David McCallum in “Julius Caesar”. I saw the first version of the musical “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” with Betty Buckley, Howard McGillin and Cleo Laine, which co-starred the late, great Larry Shue, who died tragically in a plane crash before the musical opened on Broadway. I’ve seen birds dive-bomb actors, rats running through the fake grass, and raccoons frolicking in the trees above the whole shebang.
And while this season is still underway, you can be part of and experience the same joyous celebration of summer. And it’s all for FREE. There is quite simply, no better bargain in NYC in June, July and August. And this is what the late great Joseph Papp had in mind when he created free Shakespeare in The Park all those many years ago.
And so it continues. While it’s here, you MUST try to see “Twelfth Night”. Because as in the great Joe Papp tradition, unlike “Hair” and “Drood” and “Pirates of Penzance”, once this one is gone, it’s gonna be gone for good. So go.