Bugs, rain and magic _ Shakespeare in the Park

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After one show that summer, Waterston was late gathering his things and leaving the theater.

“Most everybody had gone home, including all the audience. The place was empty. But there was a guy standing in the shadows, a really big guy. I thought he was waiting to mug me,” Waterston says. “I didn’t know what to do, so I thought I’d brave it and started to walk out. Out of the darkness, comes this great voice.”

“You played Hamlet?” the hulking man asked Waterston.

Waterston said yes.

“He said, `Man, that was right off the street,’” the actor recalls.

It was pretty much the best compliment you could get in 1975.

“I thought, `The New York Times can’t beat that.’”

`TREMENDOUSLY BIG EXPERIENCE’

Lily Rabe, who played Portia in “The Merchant of Venice” in the park opposite Al Pacino in the summer of 2010, is another repeat performer. She’s currently back, playing Rosalind in “As You Like It.”

Asked why she returns, she points to a recent dinner break: The cast and crew were sprawled out on a lawn, reading, chatting and napping. There was a game of basketball going on and Peter Gabriel was playing on a stereo. The sun was out.

“You just feel as if your heart is going to burst out of your chest at all times, whether it’s on a dinner break, or during rehearsal or your first preview or your last show. For me, it’s just a tremendously big experience,” she says.

Rabe, the daughter of Tony Award-winning playwright David Rabe and Oscar-nominated actress Jill Clayburgh, attended park shows with her parents and saw many recent productions, including “Mother Courage,” `’The Seagull,” `’Romeo and Juliet” and “Twelfth Night.”

“If I’m not on the stage then I want to be in the audience,” she says.

She says there’s something freeing for an actor about the unpredictable weather and audience. If it rains, it rains. If a plane’s engine disrupts a quiet moment, there’s nothing anyone can do.

“There is no tricking yourself into thinking that you have any control over what’s going to happen and that, to me, is very relaxing because you sort of release your grip on everything,” she says. “If any place is going to set you free, it’s the park.”

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