By JOHN LITHGOW JULY 27, 2014 1:22 PM | ArtsBeat/The New York Times
John Lithgow, a Tony-winning actor and writer, will be regularly blogging on ArtsBeat as he rehearses and performs “King Lear” for Shakespeare in the Park.
I was hoping I’d get a chance to write this entry. On Wednesday I finally experienced one of those historic nights at the Delacorte Theater when Shakespeare collides with cataclysmic weather.
Thirty minutes into our second preview of “King Lear,” the Delacorte and everyone in it was assaulted by thunder, lightning and torrential rain. For several days the weather reports had predicted storms for that night, but ticket holders had been undaunted. Ignoring the lowering skies, they had packed the house.
Cole Bonenberger, our unflappable production stage manager, was our in-house meteorologist for the evening. With a keen eye on iPhone weather maps, he had calculated within minutes the time that the storm would strike. He predicted 8:30 p.m., and briefed us on procedures. Rain would not stop us but lightning would. He told us to listen for his voice on the Delacorte speakers announcing a suspension of the performance, at which time we were to simply head back to our dressing rooms.
We listened to his instructions with a giddy gallows humor, caught between hoping that lightning would and would not strike. There were a lot of jokes involving Act III, Scene 2. That is when Lear bellows “Blow, winds and crack your cheeks!” as he and the Fool trudge across a heath in a howling storm. But Cole darkly assured us that we probably wouldn’t get that far.
Places were called, and off we went to do the show.
Cole was uncannily right. For the first half hour of the play, there were distant flashes of lightning and rumbles of thunder, but no rain. The ominous atmosphere only seemed to intensify the opening moments of the play.
In the fourth scene, Lear and his knights arrive at Goneril’s castle at the end of a day of hunting. The knights inform Lear that Goneril’s servants have been treating them shabbily and, by extension, have been disrespectful to the King. The low-key conversation was the exact opposite of a storm scene, but we had a storm all right. As if God had abruptly flipped a switch, crashing thunder and bolts of lightning suddenly shook the air. Driving rain inundated us. The chaotic sound of umbrellas opening, ponchos deploying, and frantic chatter rose up from the audience. Within seconds, we heard Cole’s calm, amplified voice over the sound system informing the audience that the performance would be “momentarily” halted. He instructed the actors to leave the stage, but we needed no prodding.
From that point on, the night took on an unworldly quality. The rain pounded down for 15 minutes then gradually dwindled to a steady sprinkle. We actors sat damply in our dressing rooms, thinking quite reasonably that our work day was probably over. In and around the theater, 1,800 people were deliberating whether to leave or stay. At one point I walked up one of the two vomitoria (the entrance ramps from the audience) and chatted with some of the cheerful, rain-soaked optimists who were waiting out the rain. Back in the actors’ quarters Annette Bening, assuming her role of Goneril, taunted me hilariously for currying favor with the audience to get them on Lear’s side.
Then, a half hour later, came the big surprise. It was one of those public address pronouncements that loyal Delacorte playgoers treasure forever. Cole’s reassuring voice came on again and announced that the show would resume in five minutes. Half of the audience had stuck around and we heard their full-throated cheers as we prepared to go back to work.
That night, “King Lear” was simply amazing. It was only our second preview, so the show still had plenty of clumsy moments. But I’m not sure we will ever regain the feeling of dislocation and desolation, of a world out of joint and teetering toward madness, that filled the air both on and off the stage. A light rain continued to fall, our costumes were clumped and heavy, the central platform was puddled and slick and the wood-chip turf surrounding it had turned into chocolate brown muck. But we actors never lost focus and the audience was riveted. The rain only heightened their involvement. The elements sharpened the urgency of Shakespeare’s language and his vision of nature’s barbarity was blindingly clear. Just imagine how a line like this registered, as Lear on the heath first perceives the suffering of the poor:
Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en
Too little care of this!
The show ended at 11:58 p.m. Our half-an-audience stood and cheered, matching the decibel level of a full house. We actors spontaneously applauded them in return before taking a single bow. It was a night of ecstatic shared experience that brought to mind another phrase from Shakespeare, spoken several times over the last 52 years from the stage of the Delacorte:
“We few, we happy few.”
Reference: ArtsBeat/The New York Times By JOHN LITHGOW JULY 27, 2014 1:22 PM