It's a swelteringly hot Sunday in mid-July, the kind of day that turns the predispositionally sweaty into the apoplectically drenched. The sun's direct assault has withdrawn into summer twilight, but subway stations between the Upper West Side and Brooklyn are horrendously hot and still. Construction and weekend service changes and navigational ineptitude stretch a 35-minute trip closer to 90.
We're on our way to Shakespeare in the Park — not the park, Central Park, the one with people camping out overnight for ticket distribution in lines that would make the Cronut guy blush — but more accurately Shakespeare in a park. The production is 1 Henry IV followed by 2 Henry IV, and the players have been doing Shakespeare every summer since 2010 here in Carroll Park, Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn NY. Turnout clocks in right around ninety, give or take, depending on whether you count the babies whose resistance to heat-related wilting, like tiny little heads of lettuce, is minimal. The babies are either silently enraptured or asleep, and though I can't see into their shaded carriages I would bet on the latter. Adults, yours truly included, are in full wilt mode.
Due to some poor timing and the aforementioned construction and weekend service changes we arrive solidly halfway into 1 Henry IV during the middle of one of the pub scenes. Falstaff has a pillow on his head, and one of Falstaff's friends is wearing Toms. We sit far enough away from the unamplified production that I catch, generously, every third word, though Falstaff (Jonathan Hopkins, a very thin veteran of the Carroll Park summer Shakespeare with a suspiciously pillowish beer gut) is still quite funny despite the distance and inaudibility. All of the actors, dressed and overdressed in different degrees of period costume, have taken on the tomato-colored sheen of a peanut vendor at a Yankees game.
The venue is one block square and encircled with trees, tucked between the northern bits of Red Hook and Gowanus. Basketball courts at the west end of the block are at full capacity, preteens play tag in the middle courtyard around a monument with an inscription I forgot to read, pre-preteens screech on a jungle gym stage right, a Mr. Frostee Ice Cream truck is parked stage left, and Shakespeare happens in the middle of the east side of the block. A Milk Bar outpost next to the subway exit about a hundred yards away is one of the few Brooklynish marks in what is otherwise a slightly older, reasonably affluent but pretty solidly familial neighborhood. Two serene, tattooed dads in their mid-30s sit together in matching white-out Jordans as their children, in defiance of the temperatures that've turned most of the adults into human puddles, run unabated up and down the curly centerpiece slide on the jungle gym. A woman straddling a picnic bench a few feet away pours herself a plastic cupfull of white wine from a bottle that just has to be pretty tepid by now.
At this point in the evening my familiarity with 1 Henry IV is still somewhere in the neighborhood of "vague," and not getting much better as I would guess we arrived in the middle of Act IV. Before we're able to recognize anyone beyond the king, the prince, and Falstaff, the play ends to warm applause as the rebels (I think) are defeated by Henry IV &co. in an impressive flurry of stage swordfighting that requires zero lines of dialogue to get the gist of. Falstaff, having avoided the battle by playing dead, encourages the assembled to get up, take ten, stretch, pick up something from Mr. Frostee, and get ready for part two. On the way out — my companion had work in the morning — we pass a sign on the gate bidding "Welcome to Your Park." It's still hot, but as we emerge from the subway back in Manhattan a breeze off the Hudson keeps us just shy of uncomfortable. The crowned prince said it earlier, barely projecting over the sound of the Mr. Frostee jingle: "If all the year were playing holidays,/ To sport would be as tedious as to work"