Gala on the Green, the Public Theater’s annual benefit held Tuesday night steps from the Delacorte Theater in New York’s Central Park, is the best spot in town for a breezy evening spent as a fly on the wall.
Last evening, for example, Liev Schreiber served as emcee. At his table sat Oscar Isaac and Ethan Hawke, while nearby was Peter Dinklage and partner Erica Schmidt. Pillars of the New York theater community like Kelli O’Hara, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Julia Murney, Suzan-Lori Parks and “A Strange Loop’s” Michael R. Jackson were on hand, too. Film and television executives, like Jason Blum and Barbara Broccoli, had cocktails with former NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg, while philanthropists and investors like Mercedes Bass and Richard Roth chatted politely nearby.
It’s safe to say that few events in New York still assemble such an eclectic composite of society and culture, and that’s because each of the guests owe — in their own way — a debt to the Public Theater, celebrating 60 years of Shakespeare in the Park this season. Many of the actors in attendance, including Schreiber, got their first roles in New York at the Public. To philanthropists and politicians, the institution started by Joe Papp remains a gatekeeper for the American theater’s body politic, the vanguard of theater as public work in New York City.
“There aren’t many places left in the theater that have a classic component where actors can refine their technique and grow on the job,” Schreiber told Variety about the Public on Tuesday. “This is the drum I bang,” he said. “The Public is the jewel in the crown of New York. Its plays can contain anything, and I owe my career to them.”
Held each year at the start of the summer season, the Public’s gala is thrown to raise money, of course, and to kick off the summer season of Shakespeare in the Park, which this year brings a revival of Shaina Taub’s “As You Like It” and a groundbreaking adaptation of “Richard III” by “Slave Play” director Robert O’Hara with Danai Gurira starring as the despot.
“We’re putting on a play about the first performative political villain, the first person who decided he could lie through his teeth and make it work. Needless to say, this is something that’s in the air,” Oskar Eustis, the Public’s ever ebullient artistic director, told Variety about “Richard III,” which begins June 17.
“Robert had this brilliant insight,” he explained, “of Richard’s deformity not as something that is innate to him, but as something that’s projected by others. Then, in this production, the condition of being a Black woman becomes the thing that other people find grotesque in a leader.”
Of course, Shakespeare in the Park, often a flash pan for issues facing the city and country, is no stranger to using Shakespeare as a political oracle. In 2017, the Public’s “Julius Caesar,” which placed the Roman tragedy in a very Trump-y White House, became a Fox News sensation, nightly decried as political violence against the right.
“I decided to do ‘Julius Caesar’ two days after the election, because it felt like we needed to do something big,” Eustis recalled on Tuesday. “That was a sledge hammer, not a scalpel. Now it feels like we’re in a much more complicated time, and to do something like ‘Richard’ with Danai, something that’s thick in levels of meaning, is not a simple reflection of the times.”
As for entertainment on Tuesday, Kimber Elayne Sprawl, currently starring in the Public-produced “Girl From the North Country,” performed “Has Anybody Seen My Love.” Isaac, who last played Hamlet at the Public and began his acting career with a 2005 production of “Two Gentlemen of Verona,” brought his guitar onstage to sing “Symphony” from his first turn at the Delacorte. O’Hara sang Sondheim’s “Children Will Listen,” and Goldsberry sang a rendition of Jimmy Cliff’s “I Can See Clearly Now.” Murney closed the evening with “What I Did For Love” from “A Chorus Line,” the Public’s most famous export.
The gala also honored Gil Shiva, a producer, philanthropist and former board member of the Public whose patronship of theater in New York has been omnipresent for over fifty years (and whose A-list parties in the 1970s are something of legend).
To catch the performances on Tuesday, however, you needed only grab a seat in earshot of the lawn, not shell out a pretty penny for a seat at the Public’s table.
We were, after all, in the park.