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Bugs, rain and magic _ Shakespeare in the Park

Friday - 6/15/2012, 12:27pm  ET

MARK KENNEDY
AP Drama Writer

NEW YORK (AP) - Liev Schreiber will never forget the beautiful white bird that showed up mysteriously during a performance of "Othello."

It was the summer of 1991 and he was in the seats of the outdoor Delacorte Theatre in Central Park, watching Raul Julia in the title role. He remembers seeing an egret or a crane appear a few minutes after Desdemona's death scene, its long wings flapping slowly into the dusk.

It was, Schreiber says, one of his all-time "seminal theatrical moments."

"You couldn't have asked for anything better. It was one of those moments where you thought magic was really occurring onstage," says the actor, who found himself four summers later on the very same stage, making his park debut in "The Tempest."

Addicted, he returned in 1998 for a production of "Cymbeline," then as Iago in his own production of "Othello" in 2001, and then the lead kings in both "Henry V" in 2003 and "Macbeth" in 2006.

While that white bird never reappeared, another creature has grown fond of the actor over the years. "I am haunted by a very, very rude raccoon who, every time I do a play at the Delacorte, likes to come onstage with me," he says with a laugh.

"I can't imagine life without the Delacorte. I really can't."

He's not alone.

`THE HAPPIEST MOMENT OF MY LIFE'

This summer, The Public Theater is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Delacorte, home of its free Shakespeare in the Park program _ a beloved staple for both actors and audience. It's the place where you can hear a line like "My stars shine darkly over me," delivered by an actor by moonlight.

The Delacorte opened in Central Park on June 18, 1962, with "The Merchant of Venice" starring George C. Scott. Since then, there have been more than 150 productions, usually two each summer, featuring stars such as James Earl Jones, Kevin Kline, Meryl Streep, Natalie Portman, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Anne Hathaway. More than 5 million people have attended over the five decades.

The actors and the crowds keep coming back, despite rain, mosquitoes, pesky raccoons, car alarms or even low-flying planes. There is something magical about it all. Oskar Eustis, the Public Theater's artistic director, thinks he knows what that is.

"Those bugs and those helicopters, as annoying as they are, are actually making a statement: Theater isn't supposed to be cut off from life," he says. "Theater is supposed to be at the center of the city. It's not supposed to be in a dead, quiet cloistered little hall where the city doesn't get into."

The Public's original mission for the Delacorte _ to reach people who don't know they want to see Shakespeare _ has been wildly successful. Too much so, given the crowds that descend on the theater.

"At the beginning, that was at the core: Surprise people by Shakespeare's power and relevance to their lives," says Eustis. "Now, of course, you have to be firmly convinced of that to wait in line for 12 hours."

Eustis has run the Public since 2005 and has seen many memorable things at the Delacorte, including Streep and the cast of "Mother Courage and Her Children" wrapping up their microphones to keep performing during a rainstorm.

His own personal highlight came four years ago when "Hair" was onstage and he was celebrating his 50th birthday. At one point, the cast came down into the seats, picked him up and led the audience in singing "Happy Birthday."

"I thought I'd died and gone to heaven," he says, laughing. "The only problem with it is that it was the happiest moment of my life and I know I will never be happier."

`IT WAS INCREDIBLE'

Jonathan Groff was in that company of "Hair," but has a different unforgettable memory. It was threatening rain on opening night, but the cast managed to stay dry until the final scene.

Groff, the Tony-nominated star of "Spring Awakening," was playing Claude. The show ends with Claude's corpse lying on an American flag, having been killed in Vietnam. The rest of the cast files out, leaving Claude alone, face-up.

"As the music was going out, I could feel drip, drip, DRIP on my forehead and my hand. I was like, `Uh, oh,'" Groff recalls.

After the curtain call, the show ends with a massive dance party in which the audience is invited onstage to boogie with the cast while belting out "Let the Sun Shine In."

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