Sunday night I went to the final dress rehearsal of Winter’s Tale at Shakespeare in the Park, and strangely, though its a play I’ve been in twice, I’d never seen a production of it.  Cary Donaldson, a friend and fellow NYU Grad Acting alum who is in the cast had put me on the guest list.  The night was gorgeous, the perfect weather for an evening in the Delacorte, the outdoor theater in Central Park with iconic green seats and an expansive view of Belvedere Castle.  From experience, I imagine it was the first run through they’ve had with tech in the theater, and its already coming together.  Jesse Tyler Ferguson (as Clown) and Heather Lind (as Perdita) are especially good.  Reminded me of what a singular experience it is to both see and perform a play at the Delacorte.

When I finished grad school a few years ago, I got to perform on that stage, and its still among the most memorable stage experiences I’ve had.  I didn’t have much in the way of lines (I played the Norwegian captain who has a short little scene with Hamlet) and I had probably four pairs of shoes and six different hats (in the ensemble you end up playing a variety of lords/soldiers/servants).  But standing on that stage in Central Park in front of almost two thousand people every night is not something you forget.  Oh, and I did get to shoot Horatio at the end (which you won’t find in your Riverside edition of the play).

Illustration by Henry Janson for New York Magazine (Photo: Michal Daniel)

Michael Stuhlbarg (whose portrait is “A Soft Spoken Serious Man”) played the title role in Hamlet that summer.  The weather is always part of the performance when acting outdoors, but on one night in particular something remarkable happened.  We found ourselves in a windstorm, which began slowly but became increasingly violent.  At first the trees simply whispered in the wind, but as the night wore on they began to move and sway.  Eventually, leaves and branches began to break from the trees and blow through the theater and across the stage.  Now doing a play like Hamlet, which centers around a prince visited by the ghost of his murdered father, you can imagine that a windstorm like this might begin to take on a strangely supernatural feel.  The weather began to affect the performance in subtle ways, as Michael incorporated the wind and allowed it to affect him.  The cast, when not onstage, watched from wings.  The energy in the theater was electric, with the audience leaning forward in their seats.

When the players arrive, Hamlet has one of them speak a speech from the Greek tragedy Hecuba.  Afterwards, Hamlet berates himself in a soliloquy, ashamed that an actor could be so moved by his imagination and yet he has still done nothing to revenge his father.  He then pauses and considers the possibility that the vision he has seen is not the ghost of his father, but a devil sent from hell to deceive him:  “The spirit I have seen / May be a devil, and the devil hath power / To assume a pleasing shape.”  By this moment in the soliloquy, the wind was incredibly violent, and as Michael said the word “devil,” a large branch broke from a nearby tree and blew across the stage.  He paused.  The entire theater held its breath.  And then he continued, incorporating the wind and the tree and the branch into his speech.  It was one of the most amazing moments I have seen in the theater.

photo © 2010 Michael Heck

After Michael finished the speech, Buzz Cohen (our brilliant stage manager) spoke into her microphone in the booth and gave a short speech canceling the performance, announcing that it was unsafe for the actors to continue.  By this point, you could see lightning in the distance, and much of the play was staged on a metal catwalk.  Even though that audience didn’t get to see the whole play, I think they knew they had seen something remarkable.  I certainly did.

You sat alone each night, atop an old suitcase

But then one night you stood and yelled into the storm

If it be the devil, the devil that tempt me thus

You smiled to yourself and time it began to stand still

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