central park

Star Trek
in the Park

William Shakespeare’s Statue in Central Park.
Photo: Peter Roan

This was going to be a very intelligent article. After using this space previously to gush about summer blockbusters and iPhones, I meant for this month’s subject matter to be smarter – or, at least, headier.

I fully intended to go for that most of academic of topics, the kind of thing you would have to read in one browser tab with Wikipedia open in another. Nothing less than the plays of the Bard himself – and, specifically, his comedy Twelfth Night – as recently and majestically performed by The Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park in Manhattan’s Central Park was, you must know, my starting point.

Except, it’s Monday night and Monday night is (for those of you who still pay for cable) the night that the SciFi Channel airs four hours of back-to-back episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

So I have Star Trek on the brain, and yet I do very much want to share thoughts on this summer’s Shakespeare in the Park. And, if you’ll bear with me, I think we will find more connections between the works of Gene Roddenberry and those of Shakespeare than just the actor Patrick Stewart.

I assert that the plays of Shakespeare are heady and academic with my tongue in my cheek. The way Shakespeare is taught in high schools – and in some cases, colleges – is a misreading of what the man’s purpose was, what he meant for his plays to do. In this way, and without too much uncomfortable stretching, we come to our first similarity between Shakespeare’s plays and the continuing mission that is Star Trek: they are dramas performed in distinct acts, and they have it as their purpose to entertain, enlighten, and engage their audience.

It’s just as difficult to summarize the plot of Twelfth Night as it is to attempt to explain how time travel works in the Star Trek universe. I will say that Twelfth Night involves not one but two cases of mistaken identity, cross-dressing, possible homosexual relationships, and one of the greatest and least understood phrases Shakespeare ever wrote, at least contextually:

Be not afraid of greatness; some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them.

As it turns out, in the context of Twelfth Night these words are not spoken by way of motivation, as they often are used in our culture; rather, they are part of a ruse, a plot to embarrass a character that neither the audience nor the other characters much like. And, in the hands of the excellent cast of The Public’s presentation, this line actually carried with it the appropriate measure of innuendo as well. In short, even this most inspiring of moments, this most serious and heavy charge is, in context, a joke, a bit of entertainment.

Another very important similarity: both works are heavily influenced by their predecessors. At one time among so-called Shakespeare scholars it was very popular to actually try to debunk the Bard. People saw obvious similarities between Shakespeare’s plays and a number of sources that came before him (or, in the case of Christopher Marlowe, works written contemporaneously) and drew conclusions, painting Shakespeare in many shades of crook from plagiarizer to front man to myth.

These days (read: postmodernity) most accept that every story is a re-telling of some story that came before it, or, as my mother and King Solomon like to say, “There’s nothing new under the sun.” And this is fine with us. It is expected. We don’t and shouldn’t tolerate plagiarism, but we also do not fly off the handle every time something seems like something else.

For a more recent example, see the almost-conspiracy around that other widely read British author, J.K. Rowling. At the height of her fame (is she still at the height? will she ever come down?) many people accused her of lifting her tale from Adrian Jacobs’ The Adventures of Willy the Wizard. This is still being worked out in the courts, but barring some major shift, in perpetuity no one will care much that there once was a story about a wizard named Willy that bears many similarities to the more famous Harry.

Star Trek, too, is packed with other people’s stories, be it highly inventive retellings of Greek classics, verbatim performances of Sherlock Holmes and even, it turns out, many examples of Shakespeare’s plays being appropriated and adapted to the twenty-fourth century.

Shakespeare’s plays can be crude and funny, sad and moving, mystical and romantic, and any combination of these things. Mostly, though, they do what the best stories do. Elizabethan English makes them seem untouchably highbrow, but even this would have been funny to Shakespeare because much of his language, to his contemporaries, would have seemed base and coarse, as it suited the characters.

Imagine what the English language will sound like 400 years into the future; imagine how the works of Gene Roddenberry will sound to readers then. Will they be any more “highbrow” because they’re old? Certainly not.

Admittedly, Star Trek probably won’t be read or performed like Shakespeare’s plays are today. I don’t see there ever being a “Roddenberry in the Park.” Shakespeare is certainly on a higher level, but let’s not put him too high up on the pedestal.

Twelfth Night in Central Park ended its run on July 12, back here in the 21st century. It was truly fantastic, with an amazing cast that featured Anne Hathaway opposite several well-regarded Broadway actors. If you missed it, take heart: Shakespeare in the Park will be back next summer with Othello, and in the meantime The Public Theater’s next production, The Bacchae by Euripides, begins August 11.

And Star Trek: The Next Generation is on the SciFi network every Monday night. Make time for both, make time for it all: the plays of Shakespeare, the space operas of Gene Roddenberry, the blue notes of Miles Davis, and the crooning of Duncan Sheik. Find entertainment, enlightenment, and engaging stories wherever you can; really, they’re all around us.

In Praise of Bryant Park

In the darkest depths of winter, when my new-transplant-to-New York roommates and I feared that the cold and gray of January would never lift, we had an unfortunate and depressing tendency to chronicle all the things we would not miss about New York if we were to move and return to our respective southern homelands. A few selections from the list: people who don’t move all the way down the car on the subway, schlepping our groceries up three flights of stairs, frigid gusts of wind that take your breath away, subway vomit-ers. I could go on.

Finally, the bravest and least cold of us declared a new list-making game: things we would miss if we left New York. This game was infinitely more fun and celebratory than the first, and had the added benefit of reminding us in ways big and small of why the heck we were in New York in the first place.

At the top of my list: lunches at Bryant Park. Without a doubt, the best reason to take a job in midtown Manhattan – other than the obvious, “Hey! It’s a job! I need one of those” – is the promise of spring and summer lunches spent in that urban oasis of green. Sure, Central Park gets all the hype (despite the glamorous distinction of hosting New York’s Fashion Week, I have yet to see a Bryant Park magnet for sale in Chinatown) but I would argue that Bryant Park is better suited to the daily needs of the city dweller.

I refuse to concede that this is simply a product of my life-long prejudice in favor of the overlooked or under-appreciated; for me, Central Park is too much of an ordeal – too vast and overwhelming – to host a practical break in the middle of the day. To spend time in “The Park,” one has to really commit to it – there are often picnic blankets involved, not to mention all the carriage traffic to be dodged – and to be honest, I usually want my park-visits to be more like a comma than an out-loud reading of the genealogy of Christ. I need a moment to catch my breath in the middle of the day, not lose my breath trying to get to the memorable part. Frankly, I don’t have time for that.

I do have time for smelling the grass, eating my lunch under the shade of a London plane tree, watching old men perform tai chi, wondering if one of my co-workers would want to play chess one afternoon, browsing in the HSBC reading room and thinking about joining one of the free yoga classes – all of which I can actually do at Bryant Park without abandoning my workday attire or fighting with a heel stuck in the grass. The beauty of Bryant Park is that I can participate in the world of whimsy outside the office in a way that fits into my life. And for the full three-quarters of an hour that I’m there, it’s my life again.

The restorers of Bryant Park not only have provided amenities that I can actually characterize with the word “whimsy” – and that without mentioning the carousel, skating rink, or ping-pong tables – but they respect my layout sensibilities so much that I, park-going peon that I am, can place my hunter green folding chair wherever I see fit. Even on a day when there doesn’t seem to be any correlation between the effort and intent I put into my work, and the result (or lack thereof), I can actively shape and participate in the life of a public space. The simple gift of movable chairs is, in actuality, a gift of agency and empowerment to the thousands of people who eat their lunch in the shade of those lush trees. I am reminded that my actions do have consequences, that I can tangibly affect my world – even if, for today, that is only in the orientation of a Bryant Park chair.

Besides redeeming my lunch hour, the park’s own history is a compelling tale of urban life re-emerging from a symbol of urban decay. Like many parks in New York City, Bryant Park began as a potter’s field before the city grew out to meet it and the park’s interred inhabitants were relocated to Ward’s Island. As recently as the ’70s, some dubbed it “Needle Park,” and I’m pretty sure this wasn’t a prescient reference to the handiwork of the Project Runway finalists. It wasn’t until the vision of the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation was realized in the early ’90s that Bryant Park became the outdoor cafeteria and breath of fresh air that New Yorkers now know. A plot of land once characterized by poverty, death, and crime is now breathing life into its retail neighbors as well as its human neighbors.

In comparison to Central Park, Bryant is tiny – barely even visible from the top of nearby Rockefeller Center – but its size is precisely why it succeeds. Perfectly proportioned to give the passing pedestrian or lunching office drone a substantial drink of nature without being large enough to significantly obstruct traffic patterns, Bryant Park works beautifully with the pace of urban life. The green space between Fifth and Sixth Avenues interrupts just enough to give the city dweller the breath of air she needs to keep up her frantic pace, but not enough to symbolize (or for that matter, actualize) retreat. It’s compact – like my new apartment and my new standard of personal space. It knows its precise place as complement to the built environment, imagining itself as contiguous with the offices and commercial interests around it – even making space for kiosks aplenty – rather than trying to make visitors forget they are in one of the busiest commercial districts in the world. Bryant Park is a lesson in efficient relaxation; stepping in and out of that leisure zone is as easy as can be.

With a lunch break this idyllic and fuss-free, who needs a long weekend at the country house? Thoreau – Keep your Walden! Like Goldilocks, I’ve found my place and it fits just right.