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THE SATURDAY READ : The tempest of Joe Papp : Free for All Joe Papp, The Public, and the Greatest Theater Story Ever Told Kenneth Turan and Joseph Papp Doubleday: 594 pp., $39.95

November 14, 2009|Wendy Smith | Smith is the author of "Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940."

The apt title of this juicy oral history, based on more than 160 interviews, simultaneously expresses a principle that guided producer-provocateur Joe Papp and the theatrical ruckus that ensued.

"Free for All" is how Papp presented Shakespeare in Central Park and in mobile units that toured some of New York City's poorest, toughest neighborhoods. A free-for-all was the kind of battle he engaged in with anyone he thought stood in the way of making theater accessible to everyone.

And a free-for-all, the voices skillfully assembled in Kenneth Turan's text reveal, was frequently the atmosphere created by Papp's burning sense of mission and his intensely personal relationships with the artists he nurtured and infuriated during such groundbreaking productions as "Hair," "No Place to Be Somebody," "Short Eyes," "A Chorus Line," "for colored girls . . ." and "Runaways."

Turan, who signed a contract with Papp in 1986 to write this book, got a taste of the producer's volatility when he handed in the manuscript and Papp refused to allow its publication. Comments by estranged former collaborators upset Papp, and he had recently been diagnosed with prostate cancer, which led to his death in 1991.

With the permission of Papp's widow, Turan, now film critic for The Times and director of the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes, revised the text in 2006. He chose not to conduct further interviews and to end in 1985 with the production of Wallace Shawn's scarifying "Aunt Dan and Lemon." "In a sense this book is a historical document," he writes, "and splicing in a facile updating, inserting new ideas from a radically different era, felt fatally anachronistic."

So "Free for All" is not a definitive history of the New York Shakespeare Festival and the Public Theater. Turan is a seasoned journalist but not a theater specialist; he doesn't offer his own analysis or attempt to reconcile conflicting accounts of controversial events. What he does brilliantly is bring to life a period of theatrical ferment and the charismatic man who set it bubbling.

The opening chapters sketch Papp's impoverished Depression-era childhood, encounters with anti-Semitism and experiences in the Young Communist League, which formed his lifelong conviction that "culture, by itself, was not significant. It had to be always doing something for the masses."

Shakespeare, he believed, was for the masses; they would fall in love with the Bard just as a poor boy from Brooklyn had -- if they weren't intimidated by ticket prices and snooty Broadway theaters.

The noisy, responsive crowds that flocked to his first summer season of free Shakespeare in 1956 bore him out. Half the Lower East Side seemed to have crossed FDR Drive to the East River Park Amphitheater, Papp remembered. They shouted, "Watch out, he's killing you!" during "Julius Caesar" and yelled, "Aw, give 'er a pillow!" when Colleen Dewhurst as Kate sank to her knees at the end of "Taming of the Shrew."

"I realized that theater is not an elitist art; theater is for the people," Dewhurst told Turan. "I could have gone through a whole career not having had that experience. I thought finally, 'This must be the way Shakespeare really was.' "

Papp fought for that vision after free Shakespeare moved to Central Park, handing powerful Parks Commissioner Robert Moses a rare defeat when he tried to force Papp to charge admission in 1959. The same vision inspired the Public Theater, launched in 1966 to present contemporary works. For his new theater's home, Papp rescued a derelict building in the grungy East Village; for its first production, he chose a play that reflected the ferment in the streets outside. "A tribal love-rock musical? Gimme a break," thought his sensible second-in-command Bernard Gersten. But Papp was right and "Hair" was a sensation. The Public Theater did not profit substantially from the subsequent Broadway production, but Papp didn't make the same mistake with an offbeat 1975 musical crafted from dancers' memories. "A Chorus Line's" 6,137 performances in its original run on Broadway poured an estimated $30 million into the Public's coffers.

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