Jessica Chastain performs a scene from Romeo and Juliet at The Public Forum's Shakespeare in America.
Jessica Chastain performs a scene from Romeo and Juliet at The Public Forum's Shakespeare in America.
(© Simon Luethi)

Artistic Director Oskar Eustis kicked off Shakespeare in America, the June 30 Public Forum event at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park with a welcome to the most "glamorous book party" in New York. Eustis was referring to the event's affiliation with the publishing of James Shapiro's new book Shakespeare in America: An Anthology from the Revolution to Now. The tightly structured evening featured Shapiro and director Jeremy McCarter (described by Eustis as a man of "befuddling wisdom") introducing each of the show's four performance sections — every one of which focused on some element of America's experience of the Bard.

The audience found themselves sucked into the language of Shakespeare from the first performance, a stage-rumbling interpretation of an Othello monologue by Public Theater pillar James Earl Jones. The portion of the evening that dealt with Othello as it relates to America's struggle with race continued with a performance from the play featuring Brian Dennehy, Cynthia Nixon, Bryan Stevenson, and Michael Stuhlbarg followed by two responses to the play — including one unsettling essay from a post-presidential John Quincy Adams.

The flow of the event continued in a presidential vein with a look at Lincoln and Booth through the lens of Shakespeare. The in-depth meditation on the beloved president's relationship with William Shakespeare included Alec Baldwin, Annette Bening, and Harold Holzer reenacting a bodyguard's account of Lincoln's obsession with a dream-focused scene from Macbeth and recalling a nightmare of his own. These scenes were preceded by a performance of that same scene by Baldwin and Bening.

An examination of the personal relationship Americans have had with Shakespeare throughout the country's history is mirrored through poets like Emily Dickenson, who wrote about his plays, "Why is any other book needed?" to Herman Melville, who declared there were writers "not very much inferior to Shakespeare being born this day on the banks of the Ohio." Upon reading Melville's grandiose essay, writer and winner of the National Humanities Medal, E.L. Doctorow quipped, "If that sounds presumptuous, please understand, he was a competitive fellow and was talking mostly about himself."

The evening's crowning glory was a joyous look at the most popular Shakespeare adaptation of the last century, West Side Story. As a reminder of Shakespeare's uncanny understanding of the human condition, the audience was first treated to Jessica Chastain and Andre Holland performing the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet, the inspiration for West Side. The scene led into a reenactment of a real 1985 discussion of West Side Story. The discussion was moderated by Terrence McNally (played by Micah Stock) as four artists stood in for the creative team (actor Colman Domingo as Arthur Laurents, The Magnetic Fields' Stephin Merritt as Stephen Sondheim, choreographer Annie-B Parsons as Jerome Robbins, and Michael Friedman as Leonard Bernstein).

All too soon, Public Forum's Shakespeare in America came to a close with two musical performances. Rounding out the investigation of West Side, Steven Pasquale and Sarah Amengual took to the Much Ado balcony to sing a touching version of "Tonight," followed by a closing number by Jackie Hoffman and comedian Julie Klausner. The two cabaret favorites lightened the tone in true Shakespearean fashion with a feminist(ish) version of "Brush Up Your Shakespeare" from Cole Porter's Kiss Me, Kate — because nothing illustrates the convergence of Shakespeare with our modern sensibility like Hoffman intoning, "Nay means nay, people."

James Earl Jones performs a scene from Othello at The Public Forum's Shakespeare in America.
James Earl Jones performs a scene from Othello at The Public Forum's Shakespeare in America.
(© Simon Luethi)