Danai Gurira will star as Richard III at Shakespeare in the Park

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Danai Gurira will star as Richard III at Shakespeare in the Park
Darius De Haas as Duke Senior in the play "As You Like It,” at the Delacorte Theater in New York, Aug. 31, 2017. The actress Danai Gurira, known for “The Walking Dead” and “Black Panther,” will headline a return to semi-normal for the annual Shakespeare in the Park festival, which will also present “As You Like It.” Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.

by Michael Paulson

NEW YORK, NY.- The Public Theater, anticipating a seminormal summer this year, is planning two full-scale productions for Free Shakespeare in the Park, including a run of “Richard III” starring Danai Gurira in the title role.

The annual festival, ordinarily a highlight of summer in New York, took place via radio in 2020 (the play was “Richard II”), and then last year featured a single, small-cast show before a reduced-capacity audience (it was called “Merry Wives” — even the title was abbreviated) as the theater tried to adapt to shifting safety protocols necessitated by the coronavirus pandemic.

Both pivots won praise, but this summer the Public is ready to go big again, with a two-show season and full-capacity audiences. “Richard III” will feature a cast of about two dozen, and it will be followed by a reprise of the Public’s 2017 production of “As You Like It,” which, by featuring New Yorkers from all five boroughs alongside professional actors, will have a cast of several hundred.

“Last summer was a lifesaver, and this summer is going to be a huge shot of energy,” said Oskar Eustis, the Public’s ebullient artistic director. “We are planning to have a full summer and to produce in as large and vibrant a scale as we ever have.”

Of course, the pandemic’s not over, and there will be rules. At the moment, the Public is still planning to require patrons to show proof of vaccination, including a booster shot for those who are eligible, and to require mask wearing by patrons. Also, Eustis said the goal will be to keep both productions short enough that they can be performed without an intermission, which means some serious trimming for “Richard III,” originally one of Shakespeare’s longest plays.

The production of “Richard III” will be directed by Robert O’Hara (“Slave Play”), who is no stranger to trimming — his halved production of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” is now running at Audible’s Minetta Lane Theater downtown.

Eustis said that he and O’Hara chose “Richard III” because it has not been seen at Shakespeare in the Park for many years, and because it felt relevant.

“Let’s just say that ‘Richard III’ is the artistic work that for the first time really examined a political figure who utterly committed to the big lie — whose entire career is based on telling blatant falsehoods and somehow getting away with it,” Eustis said. “The idea that showmanship, devoid of content, has become a powerful political force makes it very germane for this moment.”

Gurira, Eustis said, was an obvious choice to star: Best known for “The Walking Dead” and “Black Panther,” she is also an accomplished playwright (“Eclipsed”), a member of the Public’s board and a Shakespeare in the Park alumna (“Measure for Measure”).

“She is a great actress who has become superfamous without people necessarily seeing the work she’s greatest at,” Eustis said. “Richard III is a spectacularly theatrical and rich character to play, and somebody with her ferocity and intelligence is going to make a spectacular Richard.”

And what will it mean to have a woman play Richard? “We are not going to regender the role, but what that means exactly we won’t know until we’re doing run-throughs,” Eustis said. “I know where we’re starting, but that doesn’t mean we know where we’re ending.”

“Richard III” has been staged at Shakespeare in the Park four times previously, most recently in 1990, starring Denzel Washington.

This summer’s production of “As You Like It” is a remounting of a production that had a short run in 2017, staged as part of the theater’s Public Works program, which integrates amateur performers from throughout New York City into musical adaptations of Shakespeare plays. In the years since it was created at the Public, this adaptation has been staged 35 times in school, community and professional theaters, including at the Dallas Theater Center, Seattle Repertory Theater, and the National Theater in London. The Public had hoped to give it a full run in 2020, but the pandemic prevented that.

This “As You Like It” was adapted by Shaina Taub and Laurie Woolery; Taub wrote the music and lyrics, and Woolery is the director, with choreography by Sonya Tayeh (“Moulin Rouge!”). As with the earlier version, this summer’s production will feature Darius de Haas, Joel Perez and Taub.

The dates for the two productions, as well as the full casts, will be announced later.

Shakespeare in the Park has since 1962 been staged at the 1,830-seat Delacorte Theater in Central Park, and last week the city Landmarks Preservation Commission approved plans for a $77 million renovation of the theater. Construction is expected to begin this fall, after the summer season ends; Eustis said that he is hopeful that construction can be phased and contained to offseason periods, so that Shakespeare in the Park can continue without further interruptions.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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