All of New York Harbor’s a Stage: ‘Henry V’ at Governors Island

All of New York Harbor’s a Stage: ‘Henry V’ at Governors Island

July 08, 2011 at 1:51 pm

When director Stephen Burdman decided to stage a production of Shakespeare’s “Henry V” this summer, he didn’t anticipate so much paperwork.

“We actually had to file for four permits for this show,” said the 45-year-old founder of New York Classical Theatre. “One for city parks, one for Castle Clinton, one for Fort Jay and one for Governors Island.”

Of course, by now, it should be old hat for the director. For a little over a decade, Burdman’s theater company has been serving up classical theater productions throughout New York, all staged with a technique he calls “panoramic theatre” or  “promenade staging.” The audience is required to physically follow actors from public location to public location as they propel the story forward through scenes set against New York’s natural landscapes.

Burdman chooses “popular classics and forgotten masterpieces” for each season, staging the productions in various public locales in the city, including Central Park, Battery Park and the World Financial Center. The company has put on a total of 26 plays, including “King Lear,” “The Recruiting Officer,”  “Mary Stuart” and “Macbeth.”

The tradition of outdoor Shakespeare in the city is nothing new — it actually dates back to the late ’50s, Columbia University Shakespeare professor Jim Shapiro told WNYC .

Joseph Papp, the founder of the Public Theater, pioneered the practice when he first brought Shakespeare to Central Park. (If you have the time to wait in line, check out the “Shakespeare in the Park” summer performances of “Measure for Measure” and “All’s Well That Ends Well.”) For a more bare-boned approach, there’s the  Shakespeare in the Park(ing) Lot festival, at the corner of Ludlow and Broom streets in the Lower East Side. And, if you ride the L, R, F, G, J, M or Z train, you may run into subway buskers Paul Marino and Fred Jones performing scenes from Macbeth or Romeo and Juliet.

“Henry V,” which opens this week and runs through July 24, begins in Battery Park at the southern tip of Manhattan, where King Harry deliberates war with France. Then the cast and audience catch a ferry to Governors Island at Fort Jay for later scenes — including Henry’s famously inspirational “Once more unto the breach, dear friends!” call to battle — which take place in France. See more photos of the show at DNAinfo.

For Burdman, the staging is a means of bringing the classics to an audience that might not otherwise go to the theatre.

“I want people like myself to experience the classics,” said Burdman, a one-time computer science major.  “Shakespeare appealed to the masses. We want to invigorate audiences when we approach these texts. There is low and highbrow humor, jokes, punning. There’s something for everyone.”

HENRY V by William Shakespeare directed by Stephen Burdman on Governors Island. Photo courtesy of New York Classical Theatre.

Central Park has stood in for the forest in “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and a marble lobby in the World Financial Center has evoked the regal court of Denmark for “Hamlet.” In “Henry V,” Battery Park’s Castle Clinton — which once defended the city against the British — stands in for King Henry’s Monmouth Castle.

“Most theater is about language. Film is about image. Television is about character. We combine them all,” he said. “I once had a patron come up to me and she said, ‘I felt so hot and sweaty after the show. But isn’t that how you’re supposed to feel after MacBeth?’”

If audience members feel challenged to keep up with the show, it’s not incidental.

“The theory is, the more I challenge the audience, the more they invest in the show.”