Shakespeare's plays were the popular entertainment of his time, performed for the likes of everyone from Queen Elizabeth, who commissioned them for her amusement at court, to “groundlings” who forked over a penny to carouse in a pit below the theater stage. Much has changed since then, but Shakespeare's appeal remains as strong—and universal—as ever, a vital part of New York City's multifaceted cultural scene. And many of this summer's offerings are not only free, but are performed in parks (and parking lots) throughout the City. There's no better way to celebrate the Bard's 450th birthday. (The official date is April 23.) Read on for all things Shakespeare in NYC.
Shakespeare in the Parking Lot: Hamlet, Twelfth Night and Othello
Hamlet, May 15–31, Bryant Park; Twelfth Night, July 10–26, and Othello, July 31–August 16, Municipal Parking Lot (corner of Ludlow and Broome Streets), Lower East Side
In its first production outside of a parking lot, the Drilling Company stages the quintessential revenge tragedy, Hamlet (which, if you think about it, was so meta), at Bryant Park, starring Alessandro Colla as the Danish prince hell-bent on serving up some vengeance piping hot and then some. “If our parking lot is a melting pot of the world, then Bryant Park is one of the meeting spots of the world,” says Hamilton Clancy, artistic director. And starting midsummer, on its regular asphalt stage, the company puts on Twelfth Night, a story about a girl who likes a boy who's actually a girl who likes a boy, and then Othello, a tragedy underscored with themes of race, age and culture. Some chairs are provided, but bring your own for guaranteed seating and be prepared to make way for cars—it is, after all, in an active parking lot. For more information, visit shakespeareintheparkinglot.com.
The Merchant of Venice
May 22–24, 27–31 and June 4–5, 8, 11–12, 14, The Gym at Judson Memorial Church, 243 Thompson St.
The Shakespeare Forum, which was created to inspire artists and audiences alike to find their creative voice through the works of Shakespeare, takes on issues of money, marriage, class and appearances—still as relevant today as they were in Shakespeare's time—in The Merchant of Venice. “Our production will focus on what is unspoken, the void created between characters trying to conceal their humanity in order to maintain expectations,” says codirector Andrew Borthwick-Leslie. Tickets cost $18. For more information, visit theshakespeareforum.org.
As You Like It
May 29–June 22 (Thursdays through Sundays), Central Park, West 103rd Street and Central Park West; June 24–29 (every night), Prospect Park, Long Meadow near the Picnic House; July 1–27 (Tuesdays through Sundays), Battery Park, in front of Castle Clinton
In celebration of its 15th season (not to mention Shakespeare's would-be 450th birthday), New York Classical Theatre presents the pastoral comedy As You Like It in Battery, Central and Prospect Parks, all settings befitting the Forest of Arden. The company is known for its “panoramic staging,” in which the audience feels immersed in the action of the play to the point of being a part of it. All performances, which are free, begin at 7pm and last about two hours. For more information, visit newyorkclassical.org.
May 31–June 22, Park Avenue Armory, 643 Park Ave.
Fresh from its acclaimed run in Manchester, Rob Ashford and Sir Kenneth Branagh's Macbeth sets up shop inside the capacious Wade Thompson Drill Hall. Branagh stars as the Scottish usurper and Alex Kingston, of TV's ER fame, plays his power-hungry but ultimately too-fragile-for-murder wife. Both actors have serious Shakespearean acting chops—Branagh has long been recognized for his stage and film performances and directorial work, and Kingston was a member of the renowned Royal Shakespeare Company. The Armory's military history is particularly fitting for this battle-heavy production. The action takes place on a long stage flanked on both sides by bench seating; those looking to sit in the first four rows are warned before buying tickets that they may find themselves amid the slings and arrows of water and mud. Much of the run is already sold out, but a limited number of those premium “battle-side” seats are available for select performances. Also, $19 same-day rush tickets (one per customer) will be available for in-person purchase beginning at 11am for matinees and 4pm for evening shows. For more information, visit armoryonpark.org.
Shakespeare in the Park: Much Ado About Nothing and King Lear
Much Ado About Nothing, June 3–July 6; King Lear, July 22–August 17; Delacorte Theater, Central Park, enter at West 81st Street and Central Park West
First up in Public Theater's summer mainstay is Much Ado About Nothing, a tale of two couples: the innocence and then anguish of Claudio and Hero's thwarted young love, and the heated quarreling between old adversaries Benedick and Beatrice. Though the plot centers on Claudio and Hero, modern audiences are usually more taken by the bickering Beatrice and Benedick, played in this production by Lily Rabe, who has played Portia in a Public Theater production of The Merchant of Venice, and Hamish Linklater (CBS' The Crazy Ones), respectively. Next up is King Lear, starring John Lithgow. Anyone who has seen the Emmy Award–winning actor in the fourth season of Showtime's Dexter knows he can evoke a bone-chilling darkness that belies his staid appearance. Most of the tickets are offered free to the general public (two tickets per person) on a first-come, first-served basis on the day of each performance, beginning at noon at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, as well as through the Public Theater's virtual ticketing system. For more information, visit shakespeareinthepark.org.
A Midsummer Night's Dream
June 21–July 20 (Saturdays and Sundays), Central Park, near West 69th Street and Central Park West
The Off-Off-Broadway Boomerang Theatre Company presents a free outdoor production of Shakespeare every year, and this summer it's the ever-popular A Midsummer Night's Dream. The play's many fantastical elements and whimsical characters help make it one of the most widely performed Shakespeare plays: a fairy king and queen, love triangles galore, youth roaming a magical forest, a mischievous sprite and even a man transformed into an ass. Bring your own seating. For more information, visit boomerangtheatre.org.
Much Ado About Nothing
Previews on July 23 and 24; July 25–August 10, Carroll Park
Smith Street Stage returns to Carroll Park with a modern-dress production of Much Ado About Nothing. In Shakespeare's time nothing and noting—as in taking note of what's going on (there is a great deal of spying and eavesdropping in this play)—were pronounced similarly. So it should go without saying that there's nothing better than seeing this play of note for free in Carroll Park during all its summertime glory. The play will be performed in front of the Robert Acito Parkhouse. Bring your own seating. For more information, visit smithstreetstage.org.
Two Gentlemen of Verona and Cymbeline
In repertory, July 23–August 17 (Wednesdays through Sundays), in parks throughout Queens
In its eighth year of offering free Shakespeare in parks throughout Queens, Hip to Hip Theatre Company (the name comes from a line in Comedy of Errors) stages two of the Bard's lesser-known plays, Two Gentlemen of Verona, about two young men dealing with what can be best described as Elizabethan teenage angst, and Cymbeline, a complex tale that deals with innocence, jealousy and loss. Bring your own seating. For more information and details on the schedules and locations, visit hiptohip.org.