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A Very New York Evening with Grandma: Shakespeare in Central Park

Tourists always want to know about celebrities. It’s a standard New York question, as if coming out of the subway I’ll happen past Brad Pitt, Lady Gaga and Leo DiCaprio on my way to the deli. It’s true, we have our chance encounters (Mine include John Tuturro and Woody Allen. My Dad saw John and Yoko, and Matt saw Will Ferrell and Vince Vaughn) but the truth is we’re as thrilled by a celebrity sighting on our TV & Movie Tour as you are. We New Yorkers need to Play It Cool.

But each summer, thanks to The Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park, every New Yorker has the chance to see a real live Hollywood star performing theater in the open air in Central Park’s Delacorte Theater. This year it was the bard’s ethnically controversial, pitch-black comedy The Merchant of Venice. In the role of the bitter, righteous and complex villain Shylock we had the pleasure of watching: the incomparable & native New Yorker, Al Pacino.

The Public Theater, founded in 1956 by legendary theater producer Joseph Papp, who made his life-long dream of free Shakespeare in New York City a reality. Since then we’ve been treated to the most magnificent theatrical productions of Shakespeare (and more) for free. Mark saw George C. Scott in King Lear. Mark and Matt saw Meryl Strepp in Bertolt Brecht’s  Mother Courage and her Children; I had the joy of seeing Julia Styles as Olivia in Shakespeare’s cross-dressing romp Twelfth Night.

Thanks to The Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park, every New Yorker has the chance to see a real live Hollywood star performing theater in the open air in Central Park

Getting tickets isn’t always easy. It often involves camping out in Central Park, from 4 or 5 in the morning and waiting until the tickets are handed out gratis, at 1pm. Then again, if the weather’s nice, lounging in the most gorgeous urban park in the world with a good book and a bagel with a schmear from a deli that delivers right to the ticket line, isn’t the worst way to spend your day. For my brother Matt and I, the situation was much simpler.

One classy lady - Harriet Levy

One classy lady - Harriet Levy

Grandma Levy is the consummate Upper West Sider. Smart, savvy, Jewish, stylish, proud left-winger and dwelling quite comfortably in a gorgeous rent-stabilized apartment a block from Central Park. (Sigh. . .) She also had a small operation on her leg recently, and although recovering nicely, Grandma needed wheelchair seating for the show. Which means Grandma needed her two gentleman grandsons to stuff the wheelchair into the car and push her from the car (parked inside the park!) to the theater and back to the car. Score!
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But I don’t think any Public Theater production of a Shakespeare play astounded me as profoundly as Director Daniel Sullivan’s Merchant. The art direction puts the play vaguely between the Victorian and Gilded Ages, with waistcoats, top hats and a stock-ticker placed center-stage. The play’s sets were a series of concentric iron gates, some resembling prison walls, some with built-in abacuses that rotated around each other with each scene change. The most profound moment was when the Jews and Christians traded and talked business through these gates, evoking the walled-in ghettos that the Jews were forced to live throughout most of Europe.

From the moment Pacino dragged his hunched, haggard frame on stage, weighted down by his yarmulke, beard and burdens of the Jews

The performances were brilliant: Hamish Linklater as a gangly, awkward Bassanio, Jesse L. Martin of Law and Order as his hard-partying, right hand man Gratiano delighted the audience with each word. From the moment Pacino dragged his hunched, haggard frame on stage, weighted down by his yarmulke, beard and the burdens of the Jews until the last moment when a broken and beat-down Shylock was followed, menacingly off stage, we the audience was reminded that these performers are still the lions of American cinema. And for us lucky few New Yorkers, including Grandma, they’re almost close enough to touch.

By Gideon Levy.

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