NY Classical Theater: the OTHER FREE Shakespeare in the Park

Standing on line, sometimes overnight, in order to snag free tickets for the New York Shakespeare Festival , is a New York summer ritual. But until my guest from London, Nigel, clued me in, I’d never heard of New York Classical Theater’s program of free performances around New York City.

But there is a twist. These are not your everyday productions of Shakespeare’s plays.

Nigel and I attended — or rather, participated, in a wonderful performance of As You Like It last night. Entering Central Park, as instructed by the theater company’s website, at West 103rd Street, we saw no stage, no actors or ticket sellers, and no signs, just picknickers and others enjoying a warm, late summer evening on a grassy hill. We were a bit confused, but finally a group of young people in New York Classical Theater t-shirts arrived, handed out programs and explained ‘the drill’ — that the play would begin here and that at the end of each scene we would get up and follow the actors to another location in the park, where the play would continue.

And that’s what we did! And what fun it was! As afternoon turned to dusk and dusk to nighttime, the staff turned on simple camp flashlights, to guide us to the next grassy clearing, mark a ‘front row’ for our seating, and illuminate the actors. The play proceeded without intermission, but the ten or so breaks and short walks gave us a chance to stretch our legs and invigorate ourselves. No chance to fall asleep at this production, and no need.

Much Ado is a ‘fun’ play, and the story is easy to follow, for anyone intimidated by Shakespeare. This particular production was staged in the 1930’s-40’s, with period costumes and two lovely interludes of songs and dancing from the era. The actors were engaged and engaging, with some fine individual performances but a palpable commitment as an ensemble.

A testament to the success of this mix of lively comedy and outdoor frolic was the number of children in attendance. As we moved from scene to scene, the kids led us, skipping and running to secure places in the front. The freedom to get up and move if they became ‘antsy’ helped them remain focused for the two-hour performance.

Our journey took us from 103rd to 96th Street, near the Reservoir and Park Drive, which was filled with runners and cyclists. The energy of a New York summer was palpable. It was a memorable evening.

New York Classical Theater plans a full schedule of plays for 2011, in both indoor and outdoor venues. They are a non-profit that relies on financial support from people like you and me. When the hat was passed around last night by Stephen Burdman
Artistic Director
, our audience responded enthusiastically.

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