Late Thursday afternoon in New York City, an hour or so before the sunset, a nude woman in combat boots jogged casually around the lawn of Summit Rock in Central Park. About 100 yards away, an audience of around 200 people politely pretended not to see her; she was, technically, “backstage,” and the show hadn’t yet begun.
For the past few years, the women of the Outdoor Co-ed Topless Pulp Fiction Appreciation Society have been reading shirtless in New York’s public places. You can find them stretched out in Central Park or Washington Square, taking the air and, with their presence, quietly reminding New Yorkers that toplessness has been legal for all genders since 1992. Most of the time, they go unremarked; occasionally, they are asked to leave after taking pictures in front of Lincoln Center’s famous fountain.
The book club usually prefers anonymity or pseudonyms and small group outings. This spring, though, they did something new: to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, they planned their own, stripped down (har) production of The Tempest, performed at Central Park’s highest point and “selectively” in the nude, with an all-female cast.
“Why The Tempest? A couple of reasons,” the book club’s co-founder, who goes by “Alethea Andrews,” told Jezebel, a few weeks before the performance. “First, several of us just love the play — it contains some of Shakespeare’s most beautiful writing, it’s fanciful and magical, the characters are wonderful. Second, it’s set entirely outdoors, which makes it a natural choice for the Central Park setting: from the top, Summit Rock almost looks like an isolated island. But most important of all, the text itself contains some important notions about propriety and impropriety, and about the relationship between what we think of as “civilized” behavior and what we think of as the state of nature, all of which gives us a foundation to explore the theme of body freedom and openness.”
A two-second, mostly accurate refresher: In The Tempest, the sorcerer Prospero is exiled on a remote island with his daughter Miranda. A tempest shipwrecks a group of survivors on the island, one of whom falls in love with Miranda, with a little help from Prospero’s magic. There are supernatural creatures prowling about, led by Caliban, a sort of freckled monster, and the whole thing ends in a wedding.
The Free Tempest, as the topless book club dubbed their version, plays with nudity to explore notions about propriety, civilization, wildness and freedom; Miranda and Prospero stroll around the island naked, as do Caliban and the other half-demons, who wore only psychedelic body paint; the shipwrecked Europeans at first stubbornly cling to their clothes, but then slowly shed them as the island’s stubborn heat and all the sorcery gets to them.
“Shakespeare makes a big point of telling us that their clothing has been magically preserved intact, despite the ordeal they’ve been through,” Andrews told us. “And in our staging this will be a sort of punishment for them: they’ll learn over the course of the play that court garments are a terrible choice when you’re climbing around on rocks or sweating under the equatorial sun. And so, bit by bit, as they become reconciled to their new setting and come to terms with Prospero, they’ll shed these outfits, and meet the exiles on their own terms.”
It is, Andrews added dryly, “impossible to talk about Shakespeare and not sound a little like an over-earnest undergrad. But at the same time, we really do mean it. This isn’t just an excuse to get naked—it’s an attempt to say something serious about why getting naked matters, and what it can mean, and why the freedom to do so is important.”
Andrews added that the nudity in the play is meant to be non-sexual: “The difference between Miranda’s entirely casual attitude toward nudity and the shipwreck victims’ attitudes at seeing her that way can illustrate the gulf between what nudity means to the more conventionally minded and what it means to us.”
The Free Tempest is a two-performance only affair: one happened Thursday afternoon; the other will take place Friday, May 20, at 2 p.m. At Thursday’s performance, the crowd was mostly young and hip, joined by a few beaming senior citizens in comfy shoes who may have just been making their way through the park. In the audience, one of the book club’s members, clad in a big black sun hat, tights and heels, casually put sunscreen on her chest. A tiny, adorable girl of maybe seven or so sat with her father. She contentedly ate a piece of pizza the size of her face, gazing at the actors in quiet wonder. An usher only had to ask an intently focused man with an iPhone to stop filming twice.
It started to get colder and darker on Summit Rock, as the play drew to an end. “We are such stuff as dreams are made on,” Prospero told the audience, as an older gentleman with bird-watching binoculars wandered by. He regarded the actors through them, then shuffled away.
“As you from crimes would pardoned be, let your indulgence set me free,” Prospero told the audience as she pulled her clothes on (Shakespeare’s naked bid for applause). They obliged; the actors took their bows and then, still nude, vanished from Summit Rock, a tiny hint of sorcery of their own.
Top photo courtesy of OCTPFAS; all others by Anna Merlan