A positive test in the company canceled what was supposed to be opening night. A torrential thunderstorm had canceled the first preview.
“It’s been harrowing, harrowing, harrowing, the whole way through,” says Jocelyn Bioh,the playwright of “Merry Wives,” an all-Black adaptation of a Shakespearean comedy that (eventually) reopened the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, 16 months after theaters worldwide were shut down.
But COVID-19 and the vagaries of the weather were just two of the challenges facing the cast and crew of “Merry Wives,” as chronicled in “Reopening Night,” an 85-minute documentary on HBO about the making of the show.
We see the ordinary effort (which under any circumstances is extraordinary) that goes into the creation of any theater in New York – the first table reading (in this case conducted over Zoom); the scouting of New York locations for the design and then construction of the set; the rehearsal of the musicians, the meticulous costume design
We see the particular challenges of staging a show outdoors – not just the weather, but overly inquisitive raccoons, and the occasional fallen tree (“If a tree falls in the theater, and no audience is around to see it, is it art?” one crew member jokes drily.)
We also see the challenges that cast and crew have faced because of their race.
Several allude, without details, to having felt degraded in the past just trying to do their job.
Jacob Ming-Trent, who played the comic center of the play, Falstaff, says he quit theater entirely because of the way he was treated in the past at the Public itself. He chokes up at the irony and triumph of his return there.
Among the many people involved in the production who are interviewed at some length is a recent transplant from Texas named Chontol Calvin, who is delighted to have been hired as an audio technician for the production. Calvin had hoped to make it to the Public Theater, in the eighth year of her 12-year plan, not so soon after graduating and moving to New York. On the other hand, she worries whether she’s a diversity hire. “I’m a Black queer woman in sound. You don’t’ see a lot of us.”
Those of us who follow the ins and outs of the Public Theater will be intrigued to hear artistic director Oskar Eustis say outright that his job right now “is about handing over power.”
But I think anybody would be moved by the passion and dedication expressed by the many people involved in making “Merry Wives”— there are many challenges, one crew member says, but “the beauty and magic is what keeps you there.” Several moments suggest that the audience feels the same way. One masked theatergoer, who goes every year to Shakespeare in the Park, was there waiting during the thunderstorm hoping the show would not be canceled: “Even if I get struck by lightning it’ll be worth it.”
I can attest personally that it was worth it to be back at the Delacorte, and to watch the speech that Falstaff gives, and that leads the documentary:
“It’s been a long, hard year. Couldn’t go to the clubs. Couldn’t hit up the bars. Liquor stores was closed all early. Been stuck in the house just eating snacks. Watching Netflix. Bored outta my Got-damned mind! You know what I’m talking about. So can you blame me for tryna get with Madam Page and Madam Ford?”