New York -- It seemed like the kickoff to every other summer of Shakespeare in Central Park. The sun was blasting the Delacorte Theater stage unmercifully, just as it has during rehearsals each year since 1962. The humidity was unbearable. The actors were parched. And as always the director was barking out marching orders to a sweating cast whose enthusiasm had somehow managed to triumph over the heat.
But there is a crucial difference this summer, the 30th-anniversary season at the flag-festooned Delacorte. It is the first July that the Shakespeare Festival has mounted a summer season without Joseph Papp, who died on Oct. 31. The theater's founder, nurturer, and Jeremiah, he once staked his theatrical reputation on the battle for free Shakespeare in the park. Joe -- as he is ubiquitously called at the Delacorte -- is still very much on everyone's minds.
"Creating this production is a task of some special responsibility, thinking of Joe," said the director Adrian Hall. Taking a break on a recent afternoon while guiding the cast of "As You Like It," Mr. Hall said he was gratified to be making his Delacorte debut, but chagrined that he had always been too busy to work for his friend Papp.
Mr. Hall first met Papp in the mid-1950s, when they were both starting out in New York. Subsequently, Mr. Hall established a reputation as a director of new and classical works in theaters across the land, and won a Tony Award for directing "Amadeus" on Broadway in 1981.
Mr. Hall had been promising Papp for decades that he would direct in Central Park, but had never quite gotten around to it. "Being here is simply the fulfillment of a very old obligation to Joe," he said.
It is also a chance for the director and the Shakespeare Festival to get back to basics. The production, which is in previews with opening night set for tomorrow, stars Elizabeth McGovern as Rosalind, Richard Libertini as Jacques, Donald Moffat as Touchstone, George Morfogen as Duke Senior, Larry Bryggman as Duke Frederick, and Jake Weber as Orlando.
"An institution collects a lot of barnacles through the years," Mr. Hall said, "and we decided this year to clear everything away, to free everything up and tear down all the improvements."
Working with the set designer Eugene Lee, Mr. Hall directed crews to remove the wings, and leveled the raised stage so the audience now sits before an unobstructed view of Belvedere Castle, its lake and the surrounding Central Park woodlands.
In getting back to ground zero in this way, Mr. Hall said: "We realized we'd achieved a return to those first years when Joe was performing in the park, without a stage structure." He referred to the pastoral productions in the summer of 1957, when Papp first brought his mobile Shakespeare theater truck to the greensward of Central Park near Belvedere Castle, on the site that would later become the Delacorte -- which these days is called "Camp Delacorte" by rain-buffeted, mosquito-beleaguered actors.
"Doing this now is something very personal to me," Mr. Hall said. "You don't want to get too corny and say Joe is here somehow; you can't make any metaphysical judgments about whether Joe is smiling down on us from up there, or smiling up at us from down there." He grinned. "But I do think he would be pleased that I'm finally here."
It was at this same site on the lake, now visible to audiences again in this production, that Papp fought his legendary battle with the most powerful politician in New York at the time, Robert Moses, who as parks commissioner tried in 1959 to evict Papp from the park unless the public was charged a fee.
The producer sued, and ultimately an appeals court permitted the season to continue free of charge. A permanent theater was completed in 1962.
The history of Papp's struggle, and decades of commitment to the summer season, "made it essential that we continue Shakespeare in the park," said JoAnne Akalaitis, Papp's successor as artistic director of the Shakespeare Festival.
"But we did discuss whether we could continue doing it," she said. "It takes a third of our production budget: an enormous commitment."
She explained that $1.3 million of the festival's $3.6 million operating budget for the fiscal year ending Aug. 30 will be spent to support this summer's two Central Park productions. "As You Like It" will be followed by "The Comedy of Errors," to be directed by Caca Rosset, the Brazilian who directed last summer's "Midsummer Night's Dream."
The festival's total budget this year is just short of $10 million, down from $16 million in 1987. Government and private support has eroded to the extent that last week the festival had to let seven people go from its casting, technical, press, and archive offices.
"But among the staff, the board of directors, everyone, the general feeling was that if one thing continues, it has to be this, because it's a part of our history and part of Joe's legacy," Ms. Akalaitis said.
Now Papp's theatrical colleagues are looking to the future.