Friday, August 11, 2006

it's a mystery...

"Mr. Fennyman, let me explain about the theatre business. The natural condition is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster. Believe me, to be closed by the plague is a bagatelle in the ups and downs of owning a theatre…Strangely enough, it all turns out well."

Henslow, Shakespeare in Love

Yesterday began around six in the morning with a discussion of whether or not I should go wait in line at the Delacourt Theater in Central Park to get free tickets to see Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline and Austin Pendelton in Tony Kushner's revamped production of Brecht's Mother Courage. The Public Theater's summer Shakespeare in the Park is one of the perks of living in New York that I have always meant to take advantage of but haven't... or hadn't, until now. So the conversation was driven in part by my guilty self-knowledge that yes, I probably could pass up the chance to sit under the stars in a small theater in Central Park a few feet away from Meryl Streep, because I've certainly passed up such chances before.

But could I really? I still remember bawling at the end of Sophie's Choice, which I saw when I was nine years old, during the weird time in my young life that I became my recently separated, then widowed, mother's movie date. As a result of her single status, I was her companion for a handful of age-inappropriate movies that also included Reds, The Elephant Man and An Officer and a Gentleman. In later years, my mother denied me the pleasure of Flashdance, Footloose and Purple Rain - popular slumber party rentals among the 12-year-old set with the explosion of VHS. This was probably unfair, and, as a result, unlike my friends fantasizing about purple-suited Prince, I had nightmares about the disfigured gentleman who breathed funny and was forced by polite society to wear a bag over his head.

But, I digress. Obviously I had plenty to think about while I waited in line, where I landed after tossing caution to the wind and ignoring weather forecastss that warned of possible afternoon thunderstorms. I trekked off to the park, my i-pod, my copy of Anna Karenina and my patience in hand. I arrived a little before 8 am, and, I should tell you now in case you ever undertake to get free tickets to any of the Central Park Public Theater shows, that's cutting it pretty close. There were a number of folks at the front of the line camped out like urban gypsies on inflatable mattressess and picnic blankets who had clearly been there since around four or five in the morning.

After a not-so-bad three-hour wait - most of which was spent sitting on a shady park bench, eating my picnic lunch, enjoying my book or catching a few rays on the patch of park that was mine, the line began to move. Shortly after my arrival, two people a few spots in front of me actually left the line in a huff. One of them had come to hold a place in line while the other ran to the deli to pick up coffee, etc. But, holding a place in line for someone is a no-no, as was explained by the line attendants when they told the guy who went for coffee he was going to have to go to the back of the line. The couple yelled a little and finally just left instead. This was actually a smart move on their part and a stroke of luck for me. Why? Because they would not have gotten tickets had they moved to the back of the line, and I wouldn't have gotten tickets if they had stayed. As it was I got the last pair of tickets for that night's performance, tickets which guaranteed me and Chris the worst seats in the house, as far away from the stage and from each other as humanly possible.

Luckily, fate intervened. At around 7:40, as I hurried out of Whole Foods, late, to meet Chris in the park with a picnic dinner, I looked up to see a black sky that would make George W. himself think the apocalypsee was finally at hand. I had smugly thought the thunderstorms warned of had come and gone in a little shower we'd had at three in the afternoon. I was wrong. By the time I ditched the subway (of course my train was going express to 125th) and hopped a cab at Columbus Circle, the sky had opened up with the worst thunderstorm I have ever seen in New York. I was soaked in two seconds flat. When I disembarked at 82nd Street, it was raining even harder. But I persevered and ran into the park to meet Chris by the public restrooms as we had planned earlier in the day. The paths through the park were raging rivers - seriously. At one point I even stepped up to my hip in water as I attempted to wade under one of the arched bridges to get to the path that led up to the theater. I want to think that whatever debris I felt floating past my legs and squishing through my toes at that time was mulch from the landscaping in the park. Mulch. I had to backtrack and, at one point, even had to hop from bench to bench with a group of other intrepid theater-goers to avoid being sucked into a sea of mud. Once I got to the theater to join a surprisingly large group of people huddled around it, I was soaked to the bone. When I turned to a woman wrapped dryly in a Public Theater rain parka to ask where I could find one, she looked me up and down and said, "Is there any point?"

I had made it, but there was no Chris in sight. When I pulled out my cellphone to check the time, I realized I had a message from him. He had called to let me know he was waiting out the storm under some scaffolding on the corner of 82nd Street, but warned that his phone was running out of juice. I tried to call him. His phone was dead. I started to weigh my options. I could wait, cold and wet, but sheltered by the narrow overhang that hung over the path around the theater. Or I could go back out through the park to find my love on the outside. I went to the ticket window to check the status of the show, given that the Delacourt is an open theater and it was still pouring and, now that I noticed it, there was thunder and lightening too. The young guy at the ticket window told me that the show would probably be canceled, but wouldn't be called for another 30 minutes. So I decided to make like Logan and run.

It was just as bad running out as it had been running in. Maybe worse. Because now there was the lightening and my sandals (did I mention the mulch?) had metal clasps on them and I was running in water and I began to think, as I hopped up over the benches a second time and caught a whiff of backed up sewage not too far away, that if anyone was going to die in the rain that night, it was going to be me. But I was wrong. The trip out was a little faster, because I knew to avoid the drowning bridge, and before I knew it, I could see Chris, dry as a bone, pacing among about a hundred other people huddled beneath thescaffoldingg across the street. By the time I schlepped my soaking self over there, the rain had stopped.

Word on the street was that the show had been canceled, but, miraculously, my picnic dinner had made it through. We wandered over to the Museum of Natural History to find a dry place to eat. At the top of the steps there, a woman who had worked at the museum for years told us they never cancel shows at the Delacourt Theater. They just mop off the stage and go on. Hearing that, as we watched the last of the drizzle let up and twilight descend over the park, we decided to give it another try.

On our way back into the park, I proudly pointed out to Chris where I had almost drowned and showed him the ropes of jumping from bench to bench to avoid the cesspool of mud that had once been a sidewalk. He even helped a little old lady hop a fence. At the theater we got the good news that we could sit right next to each other a few rows from the stage, as most of the audience had gone home.

The play was great, set in the 17th century during the Thirty Years War, it follows the fortunes of a tough, resourceful woman, Mother Courage, played by Meryl Streep, who survives by running a commissary business that profits from all sides. It seemed suitable given the day's events. And worth it. The characters in the play are doomed, but Mother Courage is a survivor. We were survivors too. Part of the magic of Shakespeare in the Park is that anyone can go - anyone willing to wait in line and pay not with money but with his or her own time. And on that night, those of us also willing to risk death by drowning, lightening or hypothermia, had a great reward.

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