“Blow winds, and crack your cheeks!” shouts King Lear in Act 3 Scene 1 as he rages in the tragedy’s climactic storm. But on the night I saw the play last week, at the New York Public Theater’s free outdoor Shakespeare in the Park, that line came several scenes too late. Well before the king, played by John Lithgow, had had a chance to be thrust out of doors and into the tempest by his scheming daughters and his own failing sanity, real thunder crashed, Manhattan’s own “wrathful skies” opened up, and a swirling, drenching downpour halted the performance.
Most of the audience – a full house of 1,800 – fled for cover while waiting to see if the show would resume. Even the raccoon couple who had scurried across the stage before the show had apparently taken shelter. But my partner and I sat it out under leaky umbrellas. As she said, “I wouldn’t dream of missing the chance to experience the chaos of King Lear so physically.”
As the thunder and lightning gradually moved over us and faded eastward, the rain diminished to a steady drizzle, and when a crew of stagehands came out to squeegee the water from the wide platform stage, they received a lusty cheer from the bedraggled multitudes. This was shortly followed by an announcement that the performance would resume in five minutes.
Fifteen minutes later, it did, after a total delay of nearly an hour. About half the audience had stayed, and another cheer greeted the actors as they mounted the stage to pick up where they’d been interrupted, in the middle of the scene where Lear is carousing with his “hundred knights.” Lithgow threw a thanks-for-staying kiss to the remaining crowd, took his position onstage and began again, with the old king calling for “Dinner, ho, dinner! Where's my knave? my fool?” Then he stopped dead and with a laugh said, “I’m completely lost.”
The audience howled sympathetically. We, too, were a little disoriented by the unplanned intermission and needed a few beats to get back into the rhythm of the play. Another actor fed Lithgow his cue and the scene continued. But it took a while for the performance, already a bit unsteady in only its second preview, to regain momentum.
It was very like a baseball game after a rain delay. The pitcher’s timing is off, the fielders are wary of the wet, slippery surface, and it takes the batters more than a few practice swings to restore their combative edge. But like the diehard fans who have waited out the weather in the ballpark and who now cheer even louder, we in the thinned-out audience rooted all the more for the hardy souls moving about onstage.
But they, at least, were moving in their drenched costumes – for it was still raining steadily, if no longer teeming. Sitting in the stands, we were just drenched. But enjoying it too, and giving ourselves silent kudos for having stuck it out. When, shortly before the official intermission, the storm scene arrived, the “Blow winds” line and other meteorological asides (“thou all-shaking thunder,” “this extremity of the skies”) drew knowing in-joke chuckles.
As if on cue – or Mother Nature’s twisted idea of “on cue” – the rain finally stopped during the final scene. And when the actors stood for their well-earned bows, they were applauding us.
Courtesy of the Public Theater
If you’d like the backstage view of the storm delay, here’s John Lithgow’s blog post about it.
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