Over two hundred people will make their Public Theater debuts September 5-7, under the moonlit sky at the bucolic Delacorte Theater in Central Park. The occasion is Lear deBessonet and Todd Almond's radical musicalization of The Winter's Tale, one of the Bard's late romances (in)famous for its sixteen-year time jump between acts three and four, as well as its legendary stage direction, "Exit, pursued by a bear." This large-scale theatrical pageant features a cast made up of performers and nonperformers from community groups around the five boroughs, Equity actors including Lindsay Mendez and Christopher Fitzgerald, Megha Kalia's NYC Bhangra Dance Company, the New York City Parks Department's Urban Park Rangers, and one giant of the entertainment industry, a Titan in our hearts and minds for forty-four years: Big Bird.
"Big Bird will be in the house," deBessonet says with a twinkle in her eye, during an early-morning chat at The Public Theater. So will a smattering of other denizens who live on the Street called Sesame, though she refuses to name additional stars. "They are performing the Dance of the Twelve Satyrs, during the sheep-shearing festival in Bohemia." Anything is possible in a production like this, an off-shoot of the relatively up-and-coming Public Works program, which deBessonet heads year round.
This Winter's Tale is the follow-up to last year's magical reimagining of The Tempest, which Almond also penned and appeared in as a performer (he does the same duties next month). "Both The Tempest and The Winter's Tale seem to imply a grandness within them," he says, with deBessonet adding that the vision is to "find a story that has enough elements that call for theatricality, magic, and an imaginative take." And everything must be dramaturgically justified. "All of the cameo appearances are in service to the story," she continues. "It is always connected to the necessity of what the story needs." Hence, a mind-blowing opening scene in The Tempest, where a ship is brought down through the cacophonous beating of drums by the Kaoru Watanbe Taiko Ensemble.
While the boldface names, like Mendez and Fitzgerald, along with fellow stage vets Isaiah Johnson and David Turner, are nice to have in the cast, the stars of the evening are the everyday New Yorkers from widely different backgrounds and ethnicities who participate in the initiative's year-round workshops and classes. "The core community partners are Children's Aid Society, DreamYard Project, Fortune Society, Domestic Workers United, and Brownsville Recreation Center, specifically their seniors," deBessonet notes. "That group makes up what we call the community ensemble: one hundred and ten people who are essentially the chorus and some of whom have featured or lead parts." Everyone auditioned. "[So] it's an extensive process," she says with a laugh. As for the Equity cast members, Almond adds simply, "We just dream up who our favorite cast would be."
And if you thought the hardest part was figuring out how to pair a play of three thousand eighty-nine lines down to a manageable one hundred minutes, think again."I feel like the biggest challenge, really, is the scheduling Jenga," deBessonet concludes. "It's hard to schedule five people," Almond continues. "It's really hard to schedule a hundred and twenty." DeBessonet jumps in again: "And then it's even harder to schedule" — they devolve into laughter before saying, in unison — "two hundred and twelve."