WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE is still the hottest ticket around - at least if you judge by the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, where audiences start lining up at noon (10 a.m. on weekends) for performances that start at 8 p.m. One reason is that tickets are free. Another is the Delacorte itself, a comfortable open-air theater with excellent sound and sightlines. A third is the energetic nature of the productions, which vary in quality but are always eager to please the crowds.
For the past couple of seasons, a new factor has drawn spectators to the Delacorte and to the New York Shakespeare Festival's other showplace, the Public Theater, where year-round indoor productions are staged. The festival and its producer, Joseph Papp, are well underway in their most ambitious project ever: an unprecedented Shakespeare Marathon, including the Bard's complete works. It will take several years to complete and covers even the bad plays - like ``Titus Andronicus,'' [see review at right] - that most Shakespeare companies like to pretend he never wrote.
The marathon started with a flourish, presenting ``A Midsummer Night's Dream'' set in a Brazilian forest. Since then it has charted a lively course through 11 more plays, ranging from a polite ``Romeo and Juliet'' to a storybook ``Cymbeline'' and a boldly stylized ``Coriolanus.'' All-star casts have added panache to the productions: Al Pacino and Martin Sheen in ``Julius Caesar,'' for instance, and Kevin Kline and Blythe Danner in ``Much Ado About Nothing.''
How did this monumental undertaking begin, I asked Mr. Papp one evening at the Delacorte.
The marathon was born, the producer told me, when he agreed to write introductions to Shakespeare's plays for a paperback book series. As Papp pressed forward, he started to think ``how wonderful'' it would be to produce all the history plays - not separately (as he had done in the past) but as a series. And then he thought, ``Why miss the tragedies?'' Soon he conceived the grand idea of staging all the plays, even those of dubious authorship, and finishing with Shakespeare's two narrative poems and an evening of the sonnets. ``I got this mad notion to do it,'' he says with a smile, ``and do it all!''
WHY fill many of the leading roles with people usually known as movie stars? Papp says the reasons go far beyond ``marquee value'' and publicity power, although that's part of it.
``There are actors,'' he says, ``who have become [movie] stars and draw these magnificent salaries, but feel the need to work onstage as part of their craft. ... For people who are very busy in the film industry, it's easier to work in the park - in terms of time - because it only requires generally four weeks for rehearsal ..., and there are roughly four weeks of playing.'' Productions at the indoor Public Theater require a little more time.
Papp feels Off-Broadway is the only practical setting for serious theater nowadays. ``There used to be a Broadway constituency,'' he says. ``Nonexistent. There used to be Broadway stars. You name one.
``There are still some great actresses around,'' he continues, ``who should be working on the stage, who really have the magnetism and the power to make an audience pay attention. Irene Worth, for example, and Colleen Dewhurst, and two or three others. But they work quite infrequently. ... All the good actors are working in film.''
This doesn't mean the Shakespearean stage is dying, however. When properly staged with appealing performers, Papp says, Shakespeare can still delight the most modern of audiences.
``Isn't it amazing,'' he asks, ``the age of the audience that comes to these [marathon] plays? When you go to the conventional commercial theaters, even Off-Broadway, with few exceptions [it's] 50 to 70 years old. Here we've been doing a survey, and ... the first three people in the line were in their early 20s. Next was a little girl who's 12, with people in their 30s. The average age on that line is between 20 and 28.
``Most of these people have never been to the theater,'' he adds with enthusiasm. ``Many of these people have come because we have these actors in the show. If you want to get a new audience ... you must concentrate on people who have big reputations in the film industry. If they are untrained, train 'em. If they are trained, get 'em! And put them on the stage!''
Is there a guiding principle running through the diverse productions of the marathon?
``I'm the guiding thing,'' Papp says with another smile. ``I choose all the directors,...and the director is the key.''
Future productions include ``The Merchant of Venice,'' the only production Papp will personally direct, and ``Othello,'' with Mike Nichols, a stage and Hollywood director, at the helm.
``He's never directed a play of Shakespeare before,'' says Papp, and he's just as nervous as someone who's never had his experience or his reputation!''