It's summer in New York - one of the hottest on record - and the seasonal migration is in progress: just when locals flee the city, tourists from all over the world flock in. But those whose Broadway dreams include a Tony Award-winning performance may be disappointed. Yes, the season's two winning musicals, Memphis and La Cage aux Folles, are still running, and available at a discount. But Broadway's star power has dimmed earlier than usual. The Tony-winning Catherine Zeta-Jones and the perennial favourite Angela Lansbury have already left Trevor Nunn's revival of Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music, replaced by Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch.
This year's best new play, John Logan's Red, starring Alfred Molina as the Abstract Expressionist painter Mark Rothko, has ended its limited run. So has the best play revival, August Wilson's Fences, whose stars, Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, both took home Tonys. What's a visitor with a taste for serious drama to do? What the natives do: head for Central Park. Since 1962, Shakespeare in the Park - founded by the scrappy impresario Joseph Papp - has offered high culture to the masses in one of the city's most attractive settings. Decades before the internet mantra "information wants to be free", Papp fervently believed that Shakespeare wanted to be free, and made it happen. He started producing plays in a church, later took them to the streets in a mobile theatre, and eventually found a permanent home at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park.
Before his death in 1991, Papp established Shakespeare in the Park as a cornerstone of his New York Shakespeare Festival, now under the direction of Oskar Eustis, which produces classics and new works year-round at its Public Theater in Greenwich Village. The festival has moved more than 50 productions to Broadway, among them the musicals Hair and A Chorus Line, and in the process won 42 Tony Awards and four Pulitzer Prizes, America's top literary honour.
This summer's outdoor productions - The Merchant of Venice, directed by Daniel Sullivan, and The Winter's Tale, by Michael Greif, Broadway veterans who never seem to stop working - are the hottest tickets in town, and not just because the price is right. The headliner is a Hollywood superstar: Al Pacino, whose two most recent Broadway appearances (in Oscar Wilde's Salome in 2003 and Eugene O'Neill's Hughie in 1996) left theatregoers begging for tickets.
Pacino is the biggest name in a company that includes two up-and-comers, Lily Rabe (the daughter of the actress Jill Clayburgh and the playwright David Rabe) and Hamish Linklater as well as the Oscar-nominated British actress, Marianne Jean-Baptiste (for the 1996 Mike Leigh film Secrets and Lies), and a television stalwart, Jesse L Martin, of the recently terminated Law and Order, for 20 years a dependable employer of New York actors, including many in this company.
There is also the usual coterie of less famous but no less respected New York stage actors, such as Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Linda Emond and Byron Jennings, who plays Antonio in Merchant. Stars are nothing new on the stage of the Delacorte, an open-air amphitheatre that seats almost 2,000; nor is Shakespeare in the Park strictly limited to Shakespeare. Christopher Walken played Iago there to Raul Julia's Othello in 1991. Ten years later, Meryl Streep returned to the New York stage for the first time in 20 years as the fading actress Arkadina in Chekhov's Seagull; in 2006 she came back as Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage. Last year Anne Hathaway headed the cast of a sparkling Twelfth Night, under Sullivan's direction.
Shakespeare in the Park has traditionally presented two shows each season, reduced to one in economically lean years to save on production costs. This summer, for the first time in almost 40 years, it is running them in repertory on alternate nights, with many of the supporting cast - though not the leads like Pacino, who plays Shylock in Merchant to Rabe's Portia - appearing in both. There is rarely an empty seat at the Delacorte, a fact that might make it the envy of commercial producers were it not that Shakespeare in the Park is a nonprofit operation and tickets are still free. Theatregoers pay with their time and effort, chiefly waiting "on line" (as born New Yorkers say, instead of the more widespread "in line"). Tickets are distributed starting at 1pm the day of the performance, but queues for hit productions start forming before dawn. By late afternoon, a cancellation line starts forming outside the Delacorte. The Public Theatre now offers a "virtual line", in which registered users may enter an online lottery for a limited number of tickets each day. Those with more money than patience may donate $350 (Dh1,285) and up, fully tax-deductible, and be thanked with two tickets to their choice of performance.
Perseverance often pays off. At 7.30 on a recent Saturday night, about 100 people were still waiting hopefully in the cancellation line for The Winter's Tale. (Half as many again were lined up for Merchant the next day.) By 7.55, five minutes before the nominal curtain-up time, two-thirds of them had either got in or given up. Once admitted to the Delacorte, they succumb to its undeniable magic. They may have already climbed to the terraces of Belvedere Castle, a Victorian folly overlooking the theatre, now used as a weather station, to watch the seats fill up and perhaps get a glimpse of backstage preparations.
The castle, which often serves as auxiliary scenery, is especially prominent this year. Mark Wendland's open, circular set remains mostly bare for The Winter's Tale, supplemented by an arced glass wall that rises and falls, sometimes suggesting a conservatory, sometimes a palace hall of mirrors. One of Shakespeare's most intriguing stage directions - "Exit, pursued by a bear" - is executed with a giant shadow-puppet image of the bear projected on to a sail. For Merchant, wrought-iron railings, screens and even a spiral staircase are moved around the stage on a series of circular tracks, though the design's Edwardian look suggests London rather than Venice.
In midsummer, performances start in daylight, and as night falls the stage lighting almost imperceptibly takes over. Amid the park's summer greenery, you can almost forget you're in the middle of a modern city, except for the occasional plane or helicopter overhead that drowns out a line, or the inevitable sirens. Nature sometimes co-operates and sometimes interferes: at one point in The Winter's Tale, evening breezes played havoc with mists rising behind the set, but when the wind picked up just as an onstage thunderclap was cued, the sound design melded with reality.
This year's productions have a clean, spare elegance with nothing to distract the audience from Shakespeare's tales and texts. Predictably, the focus of attention is Pacino's Shylock (a role he previously played in Michael Radford's 2004 film). "As with most of Mr Pacino's performances, this one is deeply intelligent and deeply irritating," wrote Ben Brantley, the chief theatre critic of The New York Times, in his review. Later, he added, to the director's credit: "That Shylock and the man playing him are not allowed to run away with this Merchant? is no mean accomplishment."
The audience was clearly enthralled, greeting Pacino's entrance with a round of applause and his bows with whoops and cheers. One might have said he chewed the scenery had there been more of it. Yet he also brings a remarkable dignity to the role. Rabe's Portia is keenly intelligent, if a bit caustic, but she takes charge of the courtroom scene with a quiet control. This Portia does not suffer fools gladly.
The Delacorte will present a third show this season: a three-night concert run of The Capeman, the 1998 musical by Paul Simon and the Nobel Prize-winning poet Derek Walcott. It was a notorious failure on Broadway, but perhaps the magic of Shakespeare in the Park will rub off and give it new theatrical life. On such a night as those at the Delacorte, anything is possible. The Merchant of Venice and The Winter's Tale are in repertory until August 1. The Capeman runs from August 14. For information visit www.shakespeareinthepark.org.