It wasn't long ago that reviews of Public Theater productions in Central Park often said something like this: "It's a pleasant show for a summer night." That meant: "With free admission, in an idyllic setting under the stars, it's tolerable, but it wouldn't fly indoors."
In the past few years, though, things have changed significantly. Not every production is a winner, but the overall quality of park productions has spiked.
This year's two shows, playful reworkings of Shakespeare's early comedies, "Love's Labour's Lost" and "The Comedy of Errors," were enormous fun.
And looking back, recent attractions have included Al Pacino in a gripping, imaginative production of "The Merchant of Venice," a resounding revival of "Hair" and the most entertaining production of "Twelfth Night," with Anne Hathaway, I've ever seen.
In each of the shows, there's been a heady feeling of freedom, exploration and ownership. In the Shakespeare plays, the desire to create fresh, pulsating theater has always trumped any sense of obligation to dutifully remount a Great Work.
That approach has also been strikingly
visible at the Public's year-round home on Lafayette Street in the East Village, where the company, which seemed on its last legs a decade ago, has had a rebirth that's reestablished it as one of the most vital off-Broadway theaters in New York.
Founded in 1954 by the charismatic Joe Papp as the New York Shakespeare Festival, the company enjoyed many years of success and celebrity, launching such innovative shows as "A Chorus Line."
But after Papp's death in 1991, the NYSF/Public Theater fell into a decline, both artistically and financially. The once-bustling lobby on Lafayette Street, packed with theater-goers attending shows in five different performance spaces, settled into a near-empty dreariness, as the company faded into irrelevance.
The rebirth started after Oskar Eustis joined the theater as artistic director in 2005.
And the production that launched it was the 2006 staging of "Stuff Happens," British playwright David Hare's semi-documentary account of the political run-up to the Iraq War. It was a hot ticket in London, but it seemed as though it wouldn't get a New York showing, because of both the expense and the controversy attached to it.
But the Public stepped in and took the risk, and jumped back on the radar, becoming once again a place that people talked about.
That willingness to explore, to embrace the new and different, has continued, and the theater has thrived.
Its most recent hit was "Here Lies Love," an exuberant disco musical about former Philippines first lady Imelda Marcos, created by David Byrne of the band Talking Heads.
Other shows have included "Gatz," a 6 1/2-hour, word-for-word, dramatic re-retelling of F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel "The Great Gatsby," and the musical "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson," a rock-and- roll view of 19th-century American history.
A look at the Public's upcoming fall season indicates the itch to push into new territory is undiminished.
Mike Daisey, whose one-man show "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs" was a hit at the Public several years ago, is back with "All of the Faces of the Moon." It's a succession of monologues, a different one each night for 29 nights, all related in some way to New York. Dispensing with modesty, the Public calls it "the largest story ever attempted in the American theater."
Elevator Repair Service, the company that presented "Gatz," is back with "Arguendo," a presentation of the oral arguments in a 1991 Supreme Court case in which a group of strippers challenged a ban on public nudity. Demonstrating that innovation can also be rooted in the commonplace, there's a sequence of four plays by veteran author Richard Nelson. Beginning in 2010, the Public began presenting his plays, one each year, about the middle-class Apple family. The novelty was that each opening night was on the day the play was set, presenting the family's responses to the 2010 mid-term elections, the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and the 2012 presidential election.
All three will be performed in repertory, along with the debut of the fourth, "Regular Singing," which opens on Nov. 22, the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
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