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Shakespeare in Central Park Opens 50th Season in New York City

Free outdoor performances of Shakespeare plays in Central Park have been a New York City summer tradition since 1957. This year, Public Theater producers have taken love as their theme, opening the season with the first Park production of "Romeo and Juliet" in 40 years. "A Midsummer Night's Dream" is also on this summer's program. VOA's Carolyn Weaver has more.

For 50 years, New Yorkers have flocked to a free summer Shakespeare festival in Central Park. Under the night sky in the open-air Delacorte Theater, actors -- both famous and unknown -- bring Shakespeare's characters to life.

Oskar Eustis is artistic director for the Festival. "Shakespeare is the most canonical writer that we have,” Eustis said in a recent interview. “Everybody agrees that Shakespeare is the greatest writer in the English language, and most people probably think he's probably the greatest writer in the history of the world."

This year's season opened with "Romeo and Juliet," a tragedy of teenaged lovers. The play has enthralled audiences around the world for four centuries.

Eustis said keeping and building those audiences in New York City is the mission of the festival. "What's radical about Shakespeare in the Park is the idea that Shakespeare belongs to everybody, and should be given away to them for free," said Eustis.

But only those with plenty of free time: theatergoers begin lining up at dawn for the free tickets that are passed out at 1 p.m. On a recent steamy day, the line stretched to more than 500 people. Most thought the wait was well worth it.

"I really enjoy coming here because I like the ambiance, I like getting on the line, waiting here, going in and seeing the show, the anticipation of it all," said an audience member.

"By the time you're finished with the play, you walk out knowing you've met some of the best characters of your life, and Shakespeare is not like a movie, where you're going to forget it down the road,” said another. “When you see Shakespeare and it's done properly, you remember it for the rest of your life."

The very first person in line had spent the night there. Spiro Philips said he is homeless, and often stays in Central Park. "Well, I got here about 12 o'clock last night, and I have my bedroll over there, and I slept here -- it was nice," said Philips.

He said Shakespeare in the Park was better than most plays on Broadway, and "Romeo and Juliet" is a particular favorite of his. "It's a great play. It's a tragic love story." Philips said. "She takes a potion that makes it seem like she's dead, and Romeo kills himself because he doesn't want to live in the world without her, and then when she's off the potion, she winds up killing herself, because she doesn't want to live in the world without Romeo."

Further down the line was a children's theater director who is also a longtime fan of Shakespeare in the Park: "I think it brings people who may not necessarily normally have wanted to come to Shakespeare, but, a) it's free, and b) it's a lot of stars -- people they may just have wanted to see on stage," she said, "and then they're drawn to seeing and hearing the words of Shakespeare, which is a great goodness for everybody."

But this performance had an anticlimax. The last person to get a ticket had arrived at 9 a.m. Several hundred others had waited up to four more hours to no avail. Theater manager Kurt Lutman said he was too busy to estimate the shortfall. "We told everybody, 'You're more than welcome to wait. I don't know how good your chances are," explained Lutman.

But those who miss out can try their luck on another day for "Romeo and Juliet,' or this summer's second production, "A Midsummer Night's Dream." "Romeo and Juliet" runs through July 8; "A Midsummer Night's Dream" runs August 7 to September 9.