Reopening Night, Rudy Valdez’s behind-the-scenes theater documentary, is at its best when it addresses variables. For the stage production that is its subject, there are many of them, including theater’s two major issues today: what the effect of the Black Lives Matter movement and the racial reckoning of recent years means / should mean to theater and how theater can coexist with COVID-19.
The film, now streaming on HBOMax, focuses on the Public Theater’s return to Central Park in summer 2021 with Merry Wives. Valdez and his crew document the development of the show from script adaptation to opening night.
The story the filmmakers choose to tell is inspirational, thoughtful and empowering. I can’t imagine someone watching this and not rooting for the show — in spite of weather delays, raccoon interlopers and pandemic shutdowns — to go on. It also provides personal insight into how many Black artists felt excluded or tokenized when it comes to Shakespeare’s work. I just wish it didn’t back away from the moment when leading actor Jacob Ming-Trent speaks, briefly, about leaving a production years ago at the Public. Details matter.
The brisk film would benefit from a bit more exposition and context. It assumes the audience knows about the Public Theater, the pioneering New York institution that, in addition to offering free Shakespeare in the summer, also launched Hair, Hamilton and more. It gives little sense of either Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor (one of his lesser works; think the Bard’s equivalent of The Star Wars Holiday Special) or the specifics of this creative, contemporary adaptation.
The film also dodges questions about pandemic safety. When audiences do show up, mask wearing is spotty and social distancing is non-existent. And there’s no indication of the requirements or expectations imposed by the theater. Sometimes only the raccoon interlopers are the only ones consistently masked.
One final, minor complaint: It fails to mention that this production of Merry Wives has been recorded for eventual airing on PBS. Eventually, I hope, Reopening Night will be included as a bonus feature to accompany that recording.
All that being said, it left me with an even greater respect for the efforts of the Public Theater, a stronger desire to see these actors at work and a deeper yearning to get back to the Delacorte in Central Park. Here’s hoping that can happen soon.