Like mariners shipwrecked in “The Tempest,” tormented by a conspiring God, or Macbeth at Dunsinane, the cast and crew of Shakespeare in the Park’s “Merry Wives” faced promethean odds. As told in the new HBO Max documentary “Reopening Night,” the Public Theater’s endeavor to open “Merry Wives” as the first large-scale theater event in New York City last summer was as Shakespearean as its subject.
“And here I was thinking this was going to be a boring documentary,” playwright Jocelyn Bioh, who reset the comedy among a diasporic African community in Harlem, told Variety last week at an intimate premiere for the new doc.
“Theater was the last thing on my mind,” she said, recounting when director Saheem Ali first asked her to retool the little known comedy into a needed telling of Black joy. “There were big questions for me: Why should we be doing this right now? Can we do it? And if we do, what are we going to say?”
Beyond the monumental task of rehearsing a new play while innovating first-ever theater COVID protocols, the production, staged at the Public’s outdoor Central Park venue, faced one impasse after another.
As the documentary recounts, extreme heat and torrential rain stalled much of the play’s technical rehearsals. A nightmarish storm canceled their first performance, and, a few weeks later, a COVID case in the cast postponed opening night and stalled the production. The production’s Falstaff, Jacob Ming-Trent, sustained a serious injury during a performance, and understudies and covers, seven or eight at a time, circled in and out of the cast through a revolving door.
“We opened into chaos,” Oskar Eustis, The Public’s longtime Artistic Director, told Variety Monday. “Still, not going on with the show was never on the table.”
“For me,” he said, “it was important that the first big theatrical event in New York City was free and in the park. It wasn’t premium tickets on Broadway, and that was a statement we were dedicated to make, whatever came our way.”
Aphorisms aside, the Public’s efforts last summer, as documented in the film, were a test-case for COVID protocols in theater across the country, innovating many of the systems shows on and off-Broadway use today and studied closely by the city’s many unions and trade associations.
“We had to rethink everything about what we do,” the production’s director, Ali, told Variety. “For example, when we started, there were no in-person auditions happening in New York City. We were the first to do it, watched closely by Actors’ Equity. We had to entirely redesign the rehearsal room. In an intimate and free space, how do we acknowledge that we need a boundary for safety?”
“Beyond that,” he continued, “we were returning to theater after a profound racial reckoning, and we had to figure out how to empower actors in a new way and grapple with a production of Shakespeare that had an all-Black cast for a reason.”
Clear on Monday, however, as the cast and crew of the summer’s production took their seats in a small screening room inside HBO’s headquarters, “Reopening Night” is more than a document of one production at a pivotal moment in the history of theater: It’s the story of why we bother to make theater at all—about the toilsome, frustrating, petty process of putting it together, and about the collective nature—unlike anything else in art—of gathering to make and watch a play. Armageddon—the pandemic, the weather, the insurmountable odds—were merely propellant for “Merry Wives.” “Reopening Night,” and the endeavor it describes, is about dedicating oneself to art in the first place.
“Without dismissing the fact that we’d been through a pandemic, without dismissing the fact we went through a profound racial reckoning, we fell down in 2020,” the film’s director, Rudy Valdez, said on Monday about the need to document the production. “We fell down as a country. We fell down as individuals. We fell down as artists. And, to me, telling stories isn’t about watching someone fall down. It’s about watching somebody stand back up.”
“Reopening Night” is available now on HBO Max.