Shakespeare at Twilight

When Shakespeare wrote his masterpieces 400 years ago, Bryant Park was a wilderness. Today the ten-acre lot is an oasis for those who need a break from the cosmic madness of city life. Grab a seat in one of the 4,120 green-painted folding chairs sprawled out in the park’s one-acre lawn. Sip coffee. Read a novel. Play a game of chess under a canopy of honey locust trees. And for the rest of the summer, enjoy The Drilling Company’s free weekend performances of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and The Taming of the Shrew.

This past May, I stopped in on the troupe’s performance of one of Shakespeare’s earliest, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, assembled under the direction of TV actor Hamilton Clancy (Orange is the New Black). A minimalist stage was erected on the Upper Terrace of Bryant Park, facing an eager all-ages audience of 300 people spread out on chairs and picnic blankets. A restless motion hung in the air, creating an electric atmosphere. Before the play started, a group of teenagers seated in the third row were chatting when one said to another, “You’ve never been here before? This is Bryant Park. This is a nice ass park.”

When the play began, it was easy to forget that a performance was happening amid the bustle of America’s biggest city. The actors’ voices were loud and clear, transmitting Shakespeare’s singular script through high-end speakers. Throughout the performance, the players were playful, mixing modern-day colloquialisms with the original text. It was the sharp, deliberate slips of tongue that elicited the greatest laughter from the audience, like when one actor mixed in a pop culture reference to the Miley Cyrus tune “Wrecking Ball.”

The performers were also masters of breaking the fourth wall. During one scene, an actor with a dog on a leash surprised the crowd when he suddenly got up from a chair in the last row of the audience to deliver a hilarious soliloquy. People around me shifted nervously in their seats, exchanging smiles and suspicious glances: Are you an actor? Was I too, a part of the play? Aren’t we all?

Sitting under the skyscrapers in Bryant Park at twilight, I thought about the odd miracle this performance was: four centuries later and people still gathered in public spaces for the Shakespeare experience. There was something ancient here, tribal. I watched the faces of actors after they exited the stage to see how long they stayed in character. And I thought of The Bard’s immortal words about all the world being a stage. No place can that be more true than Midtown on a summer evening.

Catch It: Shakespeare in Bryant Park will take place Thurs, Fri and Sat July 17—Sept 20 with stagings of Romeo and Juliet and The Taming of the Shrew. Admission is free. Visit bryantpark.org for details.