Saturday in the Park With Henry VIII and...

Saturday in the Park With Henry VIII and... Think ye see/ The very persons of our noble story/ As they were living," implored Julia McIlvaine of her audience as she declaimed Shakespeare's prologue in the New York Shakespeare Festival production of Henry VIII.

Think ye see/ The very persons of our noble story/ As they were living," implored Julia McIlvaine of her audience as she declaimed Shakespeare's prologue in the New York Shakespeare Festival production of Henry VIII.

Just so, reader, imagine the theatregoers of that same audience as they waited in line for free tickets earlier in the day -- a pleasant June Saturday in New York City's Central Park. Picture them not as contemporary playgoers, but as characters from Shakespeare's pen . . .

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By 10 AM more than a hundred people are clustered outside the Delacorte Theatre, waiting, as their predecessors have since 1962, for tickets to the annual free Shakespeare in the park performance. The line winds along the shady asphalt path on the edge of the fragrant Shakespeare Garden below Belvedere Castle. Some tarry quietly with coffee and newspaper in hand. Others introduce themselves and chat with their neighbors. A few are fast asleep, stretched out in lawn chairs or on blankets. "Find you out a bed," Hermia tells Lysander, and that's what Jerry Patterson of New York did when he arrived at 6 AM. "I've been doing it for 10, 15 years. I get here, get my sleeping bag, lay down and sleep," he says.

"I got here about 10," Jeremy Troxler of Brown Summit, NC, said. "For me it's very early to get up on a Saturday morning. . . I tried to get here early" -- but just like the characters in A Midsummer Night's Dream, "I got kinda lost on the way here." About 30 people down the line, Kathleen Drohan of Manhattan relaxed on a blanket, like Titania in her bower, nibbling cherries, which might have been gathered for her by Moth, Mustardseed or Peaseblossom. To arrive at 8 AM she had to rise "earlier than you'd usually get up on a Saturday morning, but it was not hard."

Unlike the main characters in Leonard Bernstein's On The Town (the NYSF's second free production of the summer, coming in August), Kaoru Ogihara, a summer intern from San Francisco, has more than 24 hours to see New York. But like them, she desires to do as much as she can while she's here. Ogihara heard that Shakespeare in the park "is one of the funnest things to do in New York."

Troxler, another summer intern, came because, "I heard it was a really great show, if you're going to be in New York it's a great experience, you should take advantage of the chance while you have it." Like most, he doesn't mind waiting in line. "I'm used to it, back home we had to wait in line for basketball tickets overnight, so this isn't too bad."

This production marks the end of the NYSF's 10-year Shakespeare Marathon, in which the Off-Broadway theatre troupe staged all 37 of Shakespeare's plays. The end of the marathon saddens some, but Russ Reeder of Manhattan, who arrived at 6 AM, said he's, "looking forward to seeing what's going to go on." Drohan added, "hopefully they'll continue doing something, because it is one of the best things that New York offers."

Reeder has attended the marathon for years but has a special reason for coming this year. "The daughter of my cousin is performing tonight. Her name is Ana Reeder and I've convinced everybody here to applaud when she says her one line!"

As the morning wears on, tourists walk by and gawk at the line of "rude mechanicals" (the players within the play), and a few join it. Young couples wander by with dogs and children in tow. People in line take turns to go stretch their legs and replenish their coffee and food.

Stephen Sack of the Bronx, Puck-like with humor, playfulness and sarcasm, remembers the way the queue used to be before reconstruction began on the Great Lawn. "In previous years we've played Frisbee and had a little bit of grass to sit on, that was definitely more pleasant."

Sack calls the marathon "a New York institution," and says that, "it's one of those things that I think every New Yorker should do and I know a number of New Yorkers and friends of mine who haven't done it yet and now that it's come to an end it's sad because they'll never have the opportunity."

Since leaving New York a couple of years ago, David Rosenstock of Berkeley, CA, said, "I've just had this concept that there's going to be Shakespeare in the park regularly." He is intrigued with Henry VIII being the last production of the marathon, "because it's debatable whether it should be included in the canon at all. . . it raises all sort of questions about who wrote the rest of it anyway? And if this one we know is by multiple authors, why should it really be included in the marathon at all?"

At 12:55 PM Ogihara is "so excited!" and Rosenstock is "relieved" that the waiting is almost over. Korey Rogers of Lubbock TX arrives at the last minute and is surprised to see his friend Troxler already in line. Rogers came because "I've heard everybody talk about it, and it was free too."

A ticket distributor appears and begins barking orders with Bottom-like officiousness. "Single file! Only two tickets per person. Do not attempt to re-enter the line and do not get people to get tickets for you. I repeat, only two tickets per person!"

"'Tis ten to one this play can never please /All that are here," McIlvaine concludes in Henry VIII's epilogue, just before 11 PM. But Richard Ku, a marathon veteran, says, "it definitely was worth it, a nice way to spend the evening."

And Ku turned, merged with the departing crowds heading into the lights of Central Park West or the lamp-lit paths back through the woods.

-- By Laura MacDonald