By TOM DUPREE
We saw a play about a month ago, and it was tons better than streaming. It was just like we were there in person — because we were!
It’s remarkable how quickly you can break a habit. It had been a full seventeen months since I’d seen a live show, and now it felt a little like we were treading on forbidden territory, getting away with something naughty. We were outside in the bucolic setting of the Delacorte Theater in Central Park waiting for the curtain of Merry Wives, and I couldn’t help looking all around just to drink it in like a first-time visitor to the city. I’m pretty sure I wasn't alone, because I detected a palpable collective sigh of pleasure at the return of Free Shakespeare In The Park.
Merry Wives is a very loose adaptation of The Merry Wives Of Windsor by Jocelyn Bioh, who with director Saheem Ali resets the plot beats of Shakespeare’s (relatively minor) farce in a Ghanian and Nigerian neighborhood of Harlem and holds the resulting single act to just under two hours. Dramatically I felt some aspects of this transition were more effective than others, but let's let the professional theatre critics hash all that out. What’s more important is that it’s been decades since I felt any more jazzed just to be sitting in an audience.
The real star at any Delacorte show is the ineffable grace of nature. The long summer day is still sunlit by the 8pm curtain, so we begin in natural light. But darkness falls as gradually as the movement of the minute hand. The stage lighting emerges, asserts itself, finally takes over. The temperature eases a few degrees and invites a wafting breeze that audibly rustles leaves in the trees surrounding the theater. Somebody could be reading an excruciating piece of legislation aloud and you would still be happy to be there.
But this one is special. Everyone in the theater, onstage and off, realizes it. As a Zimbabwean drummer opens things up by leading the audience in a chant of various African greetings, the joy of coming together for renewal of this great New York institution ricochets around the venue. A little later, other cast members also triumphantly welcome “live theatre in New York City!” to a shouted ovation. Hold on, they seem to say, we’ll get going in a moment. But first, let’s all enjoy this moment — and remember what it’s like to be with each other.
Last year the Public Theater had to cancel its Free Shakespeare In The Park season for the first time ever, and when 2021 dawned there was frankly no better clarity. But as a miraculous scientific effort produced and distributed a vaccine in record time, it began to appear possible that one summer show — not two as usual — could be mounted. At first the Public expected to fill only a fraction of the Delacorte. As time passed that fraction grew larger. When Merry Wives finally began performances in July, the producers, coordinating with city government and the medical community, had established some ground rules which seemed respectful to everyone.
There are two classes of seating at Merry Wives: Full Capacity and Physically Distanced. To sit in the former section (the better seats in the house), you must have proof of full vaccination. In the latter (generally to the sides), that’s not necessary. Everybody must wear a mask to enter, exit, or move around. But Full Capacity audience members may take off their masks once they’re sitting in their seats: Physically Distanced people must wear masks throughout. In this way the Public has managed to make available roughly 1468 of the Delacorte’s 1800 seats.
Of course the theater is outdoors, which helps. This fall, as the season ramps up at the Public’s Astor Place complex and its cabaret space, Joe’s Pub, distancing won’t be possible, so indoors, no vax, no tix. But tonight, thought of the fall is far away, and it disappears entirely at Merry Wives’s climax.
So far we’ve been treated to a clever forced-perspective Harlem street corner, with manual turntables (that is, stage crew come out and manually revolve the units) to reveal the interiors of three buildings off the street. But then the set opens up, literally. For the tumultuous scene of the “fairies’” mischievous torment of Falstaff, the set pieces are pushed aside and the background becomes the now-dramatically-lit majestic upstage trees and vast, open night sky. The set change is breathtaking, heart-pounding, not just because of the revealed natural beauty but also because it reminds us where we are. And now comes the urgent, colorful, kinetic, culture-bending pageantry of the scene itself. Chills.
Maybe I’m just rhapsodizing. Maybe all that deprivation starved me into indulging myself. (If you’d like to find out for yourself, you have about another month to do so.) At minimum I was so very happy to be in a theater, this theater, on this night, in this city, and I’ll never take such an experience for granted again.
Tom Dupree has been a professional newsman, adman, critic and editor, and an actor and director at the college and community level. His blog is at tomdup.wordpress.com. He is a skilled and venerable audience member.