To a New Yorker, one of the harbingers of summer is Shakespeare in the Park, now celebrating more than 50 years of free theater. For its first of two plays this summer, The Public Theatre is presenting the comedy Much Ado About Nothing. Free tickets are distributed to people who line up starting at 12:30 on the day of the performance. There’s always a buzz in the theater and excitement about having gotten tickets, and the audience is always eclectic.
Famed director Jack O’Brian makes his Public Theater directorial debut with Shakespeare in the Park, adding humorous touches and setting the play in Sicily circa 1900. Even now common PA announcements asking people to turn off the cell phones become part of the show and add to the merriment, as does moving magnificent scenic design by John Lee, complete with gardens and real fruits and vegetables.
The language, of course, stays true to Shakespeare but there is some funny stage business. When Benedick (played by the Public’s regular Hamish Linklater) ‘overhears’ people talking about how Beatrice loves him, his motions are clumsy and awkward. He’s being set up to fall in love with her. Later she, too, will overhear a conversation about Benedick’s love for her. Lily Rabe, who was outstanding as Portia in The Merchant of Venice, plays the strong-willed Beatrice. Linklater is like a bumbling overgrown teenager and, although Rabe seems a bit mature for him, they work quite well together.
The show is filled with skilled performers, even in smaller roles. The wonderful Brian Stokes Mitchell is Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon (and lucky for us, even lends his deep voice in song with a musician.) Pedro Pascal, who recently met a most gruesome death on Game of Thrones, is his villainous, bastard brother Don John out to cause mischief. John Pankow plays the malaprop-spouting village constable Dogberry, who becomes the instrument of retribution and John Glover plays Leonato, Beatrice’s uncle.
The plays are always performed outdoors in the open air. When it is a balmy evening, as it was on a recent Sunday evening, there’s no finer place to watch Shakespeare. The evening I attended, the air was often punctuated by the sound of helicopters, yet the players went on, never missing a beat.
Eventually, the plots are revealed and the lovers are reunited to live happily ever after.
The happiest of all were the patrons who scored the free tickets. They brought their wine, bought popcorn and sat beneath the starry skies and made much ado.