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Dispatch from New York: Shakespeare in the heat

July 7, 2010 |  2:01 pm

For more than 50 summers, Shakespeare in the Park has been a New York experience like none other.

This summer, Shakespeare in the Park on a 100-plus degree night took that only-in-New York tradition to a new level.

One of the hottest shows of the season -- Al Pacino playing Shylock in "The Merchant of Venice" on a Central Park stage -- got a whole lot hotter Tuesday night.

Alpacino Hundreds of New Yorkers not only camped out for hours Tuesday in the broiling sun to get two tickets to watch Shakespeare for free, they also sweated through two and half hours of Shakespeare in a stifling and breeze-free outdoor theater.

Shockingly, almost no one left during intermission. New Yorkers aren’t shy about such things. They don’t like it, they don’t stay.

But a 70-year-old Pacino and an ensemble cast including Lily Rabe as Portia kept a riveted if not heat-subdued audience in their wooden seats. The actors roared through scene after scene without a hint of the suffering they had to be feeling in period costumes that covered them from below their chins to the ends of their toes.

During a scene added for this production, Shylock submits to a forced baptism in a small onstage pool. Pacino’s silent anguish as his face was dunked repeatedly in the water seemed only deepened by the thirst for it in the audience.

People watched in horror at the forced christening of the Jew -- but with a tinge of envy, as they swabbed sweat off their faces with handkerchiefs and held bottles of rapidly warming water to the backs of their necks.

There was one momentary display of eagerness for relief. During the eruption of a sound-effects thunderstorm, several people in the audience looked to the sky clearly hoping it would open up for real.

Stephen Kaus, the production stage manager, laughed at the notion of a Central Park audience eager for rain. “That’s usually the last thing people want because it stops performances,” he said.

The only concession made for the performance during a historic heat wave — it’s been almost a decade since the thermometer topped 103 in Central Park -- were cooling stations with buckets of ice and wet rags set out backstage for the actors. “They spent a lot more time between scenes in their dressing rooms in the a/c when usually they’d be in the wings running lines,” Kaus said.

 By 11 p.m. and the last applause, the air was still thick.

 Joan Rivers, who was at the performance with her daughter, Melissa, later told the New York Post, “I would sit in an oven for Al Pacino.”

But others showed as much of a commitment to the Bard himself: One undauntable New Yorker, who grew up balancing cups of lemonade on his knees while watching outdoor performances of Shakespeare in this park, turned to his companion as they prepared to leave and declared, smiling, “Do I not sweat?”

 -- Geraldine Baum 

Photo: Lily Rabe, Byron Jennings and Al Pacino in a scene from "The Merchant of Venice." Credit: Associated Press/The Public Theater, Joan Marcus.