She saw it winking at her as soon as she arrived home. When she opened the door and stepped into the short, dark hallway of her studio apartment, the button light flashed, yes, red. Winnie had cleaned teeth all day — eight mouths total — in the fancy pants K Street dental office. Her blinking automatic answering machine indicated a novelty or some variation after a day of tedium (hers) and torture (her patients’). She wondered how much longer she could stand it. Working in people’s mouths, that is. She’d moved to DC two years earlier in 1981 to pursue a professional career in the theater and had been cast here and there, but the rent was due monthly and dental hygiene paid that and every other bill that came in the mail. In fact, it paid very well, but the boredom was sufficient to stoke thoughts of self-slaughter. Dentists had the highest rate of suicide so it made sense that hygienists were up there, too.
She read the counter: two calls. It meant someone had thought of her, perhaps someone wanted her for something, an audition or a part in a play, anything. She tossed her jacket and purse on the king-size bed that took up a front third of the studio. Like most of her furniture, the king bed, a monster mattress atop a box spring, stood high on boards and cinder blocks and had come with the illegal sublet. Sandy, the jolly PhD student who ripped her off on the rent, was well over six feet. He hadn’t cared that the bed was the first thing people saw when they entered the place. Winnie thought it sent the wrong message.
The neat compact Panasonic Easa-Phone sat opposite on a matching cinder block and plank wall unit. She perched on the corner of the bed and hit PLAY. Her mackerel tabby leapt onto her lap and sank his teeth into her cheek when she tried to kiss him. It was 5:50 on a Monday afternoon in the second week of April. She listened to the first of two messages, and her bowels heaved. As if severed by a guillotine the connection between mind and body was cut. Who in Christ did what? The message was a doozy. She hit REWIND, shook her head and chanted sotto voce, “Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit…”
Normally, she loved all the new technology, that machine in particular. How had humankind managed to maintain relationships, especially romantic ones, before this invention? Sure, she had recently engaged in a more primitive form of communication with her new neighbor downstairs who worked at National Geographic. She’d started that odd ball rolling by tying a funny, come hither note to a long piece of dental floss and lowering it down through the casement window of their shared bathroom well. She was so lonely, and he was so cute. After a few days of flirty up and down notes, she and Carl had a casual dinner in a neighborhood sushi joint. Dutch treat. Then he left town for a few days and returned with the gift of a necklace, a strand of miniature red and green clay peppers strung on a black silk cord, made, he said, by his mother in New Mexico. Gee, she thought, he loves me. They had sex on the carpet in the darkness of his unfurnished living room and that was it. He ended things without an alibi by going back to being just another neighbor and greeting her like a near stranger.
“DC is like that. I warned you when you moved here. It’s a candy store for men,” her sister told her. Lucy lived in the twin apartment building across a small grassy park. She was younger than Winnie but had moved to the Capital a few years earlier and was wiser to the ways of Washington males.
A month later, Winnie learned from the lady who lived under Carl, at the garden level of the building — the basement really — that he was engaged to a girl in another city.
She turned the volume to max on the Panasonic and listened a second time. Was it a joke? A variation of the actor’s nightmare cooked up by one of her friends? Or an enemy? The voice was female and familiar enough. The urgency and the trace of command made her think, no, this caller means it.
“Winnie, this is Margaret from stage management. Alice Langford was admitted to the hospital today.” Winnie’s insides swam in adrenaline. It felt like they might drown and suffocate her in the process. She hit PAUSE. When people were admitted to a hospital, they usually weren’t found on the professional stage the following day; were they? The theater was dark on Mondays, but tomorrow the show would resume for three more weeks of a six-week run. So, Miss Langford had gotten through the five-show weekend like the professional she was and then . . . what? Collapse from exhaustion? Heart attack? Overdose? With actors you never knew.
Winnie had had her own troubles with booze. In those first two years in DC, she’d ruined a rash of auditions because she was too drunk to learn her lines. She finally traded her weeknight six-pack of cheap beer and weekend vodkas for dark smoky rooms filled with recovering drunks who told great stories. Her sister’s ultimatum and her own fumbling hands inside her patients’ mouths helped decide things, too. What if she maimed a patient through negligence? She’d lose her license and get slapped with a malpractice suit followed by a hefty fine or a jail sentence, whichever the court might rule.
Winnie released the button, and her nightmare resumed. “You’ll be going on in the role of Gertrude tomorrow night.” She pressed the pause lever again. The bastards. How could they? She’d been told over and over as the female understudy that she would certainly go on for Misty, the girl who played Ophelia. The beautiful, young New York actress playing that part had been lured to Washington because her mother lay dying just over the Potomac in Virginia. And it probably hadn’t hurt that an iconic British film director was flown in from London to direct the show. Winnie had done as she was told and committed every line of Ophelia’s to memory so they were trippingly on the tip of her tongue. She conjured and recited them daily, anywhere, at any moment: scrubbing bloody instruments, developing saliva soaked X-rays, teaching her patients how to floss. She’d seen the show six times during and after previews, and she knew Ophelia’s blocking by heart. But Gertrude? That old lady? Winnie recalled her Latin, Omnia Vanitas.
There was more. “Please call costumes as soon as you get this. They’re waiting for you. You’ll have a fitting tonight as soon as you can get down here. Your rehearsal call for tomorrow morning is 9:00 on stage. We’ll run through your scenes with as many actors as we can reach on short notice. Any questions, call me.”
She snapped the OFF button. “Yes, I have a question, goddam it: Why Gertrude?”
The second message was from costumes. “How soon can you get down here?”
"For Christ’s sake,” Winnie mumbled, “I’m just a dental hygienist who likes Shakespeare. Don’t they understand that? You want a tragedy? Stick me in this Hamlet and I’ll hand you a tragedy.” She fed the cat and called a cab. She aspired to be an actress but not like this. This was baleful. Better to coddle an improbable dream than have to perform on a professional stage in a big city and not know your lines. For years she’d tried to wrench the passion for acting out of her future. Why couldn’t she be content cleaning teeth like every other dental hygienist she knew? Her dream of a life in the theatre was nothing like this current manifestation; this was more like an abscessed tooth that bubbled and troubled and pained her to tears.
She called work. It was after hours. Good. She’d get their machine. Winnie did some of her best acting opposite that machine; her performance of a patient with a foot in the grave had improved dramatically. Whenever she played sick, it was significantly more challenging to keep up the act when the receptionist picked up the phone and then passed it to the office manager. Interrogations by two angry ladies were tough on the nerves. But now if they learned she was out all day Tuesday because she played Gertrude in Hamlet on the Hill that night, they might fire her. Too bad. It was the chance she hadn’t any choice but to take.
She left a halting, hoarse message on the machine saying that she’d developed a fever on the bus home, and she was so sorry, but she better not come into the office tomorrow in case she was contagious. In DC she cleaned the teeth of diplomats and judges, congressmen and journalists, whistleblowers and mercenaries. They didn’t care if she was sick. They always booked three months ahead and knew she wore a mask. Her patients blew their stacks when their appointments were cancelled. And their abuse came down second-hand and hard on her. Some left the practice. She’d been warned by the front office about getting sick and staying home, and they always called midday to check up on her, to confirm she was in bed and unable to stand and make her promise to come to work the following day. If she missed their call because she was out on an audition, she’d call back and lie twice and say she’d gone to the doctor. It was a cat and mouse thing she played whenever the theatre beckoned.
Like an appendage, she carried it around wherever she went. Now she opened her rolled, stained, scribbled up paperback copy of the play. She had approximately half of Gertrude memorized. The rest of it, the second half, including the monologue describing Ophelia’s death by drowning, was a blank and she had only 24 hours to learn it. Lucy - afflicted by a similar performance bug - was still at Catholic U, where she majored in voice, so Winnie slipped a note under her door. It read: Guess who has to go on as Gertrude tomorrow night? Goddamn Gertrude! Help! Can you please, oh please, go over the lines with me tonight, dear sister?
It was still daylight as she waited for the cab outside her building across the street from the Soviet embassy. She liked to watch the place for spies. In those days the USSR was shaky and espionage was popping ; political barriers were crumbling in all sectors. Even the theatre was drunk on freedom. The best crop of European directors, East and West, Communist or not, were invited to the Equity theaters in Washington. Liberated from censorship, they elegantly blew the top off traditional direction and engendered a similar spirit in the small, tight, waiver companies around the city. Winnie appreciated the scene and took part in it for no pay, but her heart was in the classics and making it big.
That evening she eschewed spying and confined her brain to the script. She wanted to weep, except she knew histrionics wouldn’t help. Save them for the Queen, she told herself. The lustful queen. Hamlet’s mother. Hamlet. Hank Brody was Hamlet, brought all the way from London by his mentor, an experimental film director, famous for his creative genius. Winnie shook at the thought of facing Hank. By all accounts, he was terrible and magnificent. Backstage, according to the American actors in the show, who themselves were stellar, he was a volatile, nasty prick. He’d made it known that he hated stooping to the level of regional theatre in the US — a small house, a tiny wooden three-tiered replica of an Elizabethan inn. Winnie supposed the bad chemistry had something to do with playing the part of Hamlet, too. He had to deliver all those lines and speeches that the public thought they knew: “Get thee to a nunnery,” “To be or not to be,” “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio.” The audience waited and shifted in their seats to hear the famous words spoken with an accent by a handsome, dark haired, brooding Irishman in a black doublet, matching britches, and hose. Winnie loved the black hose. Oh yes, the pressure on him to do what legions of great actors had done before him was tremendous. But he was brazen enough to pull it off with aplomb. The only thing missing as he sauntered downstage center to deliver his best speech was one raised middle finger to flip off the world.
One night he’d vented his fury on a gentleman in the front row who was reading the program when Hank began his, “To be or not to be” soliloquy. He paused after the first couplet, leaned down, and tore the magazine from man’s grasp. Then he resumed the famous monologue while he ripped the pages apart and tossed the mess back to the offender’s lap. He was erratic and cocky. It was rumored he kept a bottle in his dressing room and sipped between acts on the five show weekends. By Sunday night, he played high, wide, and fast with his heavy sword and dagger in the fight scenes. Other actors complained. His throat, he told management. Too bad, they’d said, and took his booze away. He just smuggled in more.
She slid into the cab and told her Ethiopian driver, “Capitol Hill, please, as quickly as you can.” In those days’ cabs in the District were affordable. They charged by the number of zones the taxi crossed. In Winnie’s case, she lived on the opposite side of town, but it was only three zones because she knew where to get out before the driver crossed into the fourth. They flew down Foxhall to Canal and ran along the Potomac. If Hank hated the actors he worked with now ... oh, boy, oh, boy, she sighed. She was younger than he and frightfully inexperienced, the real green girl, and now she had to play his mom. The cabdriver climbed the hill and dropped her off two blocks from the theatre.
Her fitting was harried and complex. The corset and red velvet gown were two sizes too big. While three seamstresses pulled and pinned, she held her script and memorized. It was a mild comfort to know she wouldn’t be the only one working late that night. She glanced at her reflection in the long mirror on the wall opposite and thought the décolletage was a bit daring. In every way she failed to fit the profile of a matron. They advised her to line her face when she applied makeup. She winced at the idea. Just another vain actress at heart, she hoped to look her best. For him. She was relieved to learn they hadn’t time to fit her in a wig. Most period wigs looked like wigs if they weren’t customized and made by a master. She was ashamed of herself and her dearth of professionalism. How could she aspire to a career on the stage with such conceit coursing through her nature? She ought to give up Shakespeare, she thought, and move to Hollywood and do car commercials. No, she wasn’t pretty enough for those. But maybe Ajax or diapers. Yes, that would serve her right.
She returned home to Glover Park and spent the remainder of the evening with Lucy at her tiny kitchen table purchased for a song at the Georgetown flea market, Lucy was thrilled at the news and patiently fed Winnie lines and corrected her errors.
“Even though he’s dead, every single word counts in Shakespeare. I can’t make even the tiniest mistake because it won’t scan , so stop me if I do, okay?” Winnie insisted.
“Sure,” said Lucy.
The girls trudged like turtles through the text. Cramming verse was thorny stuff. It was late, and Lucy grew anxious. They employed tricks with images, melody, and rhythm to get the most complex sections of the text to stick. The cues were king. The queen’s lines were often a simple, earnest inversion, protestation, or emendation. King: “Thanks, Rosencrantz and gentle Guildenstern.” Queen: “Thanks Guildenstern and gentle Rosencrantz.”
“How am I doing?” Winnie asked her sister.
Lucy rose from the kitchen and walked into the living room. Winnie thought she caught her sister in the act of rolling her eyes in the mirror over the pullout sofa. “Great,” Lucy said. “Really, just great.” They worked until midnight, ‘til Winnie’s brain couldn’t hold another iamb. “Sleep might do you more good at this point,” Lucy said. “How do you feel?”
“Pretty solid,” Winnie said. She secretly wondered if she could sneak down to Union Station in the dark and hop on the Amtrak to anywhere. She walked to the door and kissed Lucy goodnight. “I have to do it, don’t I?”
“Of course you have to do it.” Her sister shivered under the porch light. “You dodo bird, this is what you wanted. It’s an honor. Think of it like that. This is what they hired you for, and, hey, it could turn out to be your big break, Win.”
“Oh, whatever happens it’s gonna be big all right, but it won’t be my break. The casting is all off,” she whined. “They picked me for the job because I’m too old to play Ophelia and too young to play Gertrude. They saved money by hiring a girl in between. And who can blame them? That’s the theatre for you. I love you.” They embraced and made their secret family victory sign.
“Don’t forget to leave me a ticket at the box office. Call me at lunch tomorrow and tell me how it’s going.” Lucy had seen the show, and she, too, had a crush on Hank.
“Sure.” Winnie sprinted across the wet grass and took the painted steps two at a time to her apartment. She washed her hair, packed her stage make-up, and set her alarm clock.
She tossed around on the giant bed. She really didn’t want to play Gertrude. She didn’t want to step in for Alice, who was over 40 and a company player. She wanted to be Misty, who at 26, was glamorous and on her way up. Misty had a pale peach complexion that she streaked with fresh mud for the mad scene. Her hair was long and red, with curls that resembled a mass of fine coils from a box-spring. She stuck sticks and leaves in the curls for her big scene. Winnie’s hair at 34 was shoulder length blond made brown by winter. Misty lived in New York and had recently starred in an opulent period film with an international cast. In two weeks Winnie was scheduled to begin evening rehearsals for a tiny role in a new play produced by a maniac who mismanaged a 55-seat theatre in a crumbling part of DC. But what really got Winnie was Misty’s brilliance. She was in awe of Misty’s talent. She wondered how the younger woman did it. Winnie wanted to play Misty. She wanted to be Misty. Winnie slept with the script under her pillow in case it was true that lines could be transferred and absorbed through feathers. She dreamed in fluent iambic pentameter and woke up happy and feeling practically ready.
She recited aloud from the moment she opened her eyes to the time they buzzed her into the heavy front doors of the theatre. It was an unseasonably cold morning. The mood in the theatre was somber, and it dawned on her that the situation from all angles was grave indeed. Though they weren’t divulging any whys or wherefores, the concern over Alice Langford’s health was uppermost in the minds of the staff. It didn’t sound like life or death and Winnie didn’t probe. Alice was not her favorite person that day. As to the business of working Winnie into the show, the stage manager approached her with ill-concealed anxiety and pity.
“How are you on lines?” Margaret asked, wearing a crown of headphones.
“Great, if you’d called me in for Ophelia like you promised.” Winnie blinked away tears.
A few months earlier Margaret had directed Winnie in a one-act for a festival of new plays on 14th Street. “You’ll be fine.”
“I don’t have the muddy death speech in its entirety. We have to trim it, and I promise I’ll know it all by tomorrow night.”
“You can read it. Carry the script on.”
“I can’t. The script doesn’t go with the costume. Please, let’s just cut a few lines. No one will notice. And if they do, they’ll chalk it up to terror. Mine.”
The stage manager relented, and they made some internal cuts together.
Margaret’s assistant took Winnie down to the dressing room she’d share with Misty in the basement and directed her to put on the floor length rehearsal skirt hanging from the costume rack. The assistant told her to remain there until she was called. Winnie flipped through her script and observed the structure of the role as she’d highlighted it in yellow. Apart from the entrances and exits, and the blocking and props, all for which the company would supply help, the part of the Queen was relatively small. Except for the closet scene with Hamlet and the monologue describing Ophelia’s muddy death by drowning, it consisted of fairly short scenes. There seemed ample time to study the lines between each one. Winnie figured if she chopped the role into bite-size bits and crammed for them one at a time backstage just prior to going on, she might be able to do it. Yes, that was her best chance for success. When she thought of the role in its entirety, she wanted to throw up. Think only of what comes next, she told herself. Margaret’s booming voice called her to places over the intercom.
The actors straggled in and milled around the house. She knew some of them personally but knew all of them by sight. They expressed concern over Alice and offered their assurances to her. She sensed they were visibly rattled at the prospect of spending their day preparing for a potential disaster that night. And suddenly he was there, scowling. Hank, looking frankly miserable. Margaret rushed over to him. He was compact and perfectly made. His mad brown eyes were well spaced, his nose was straight and strong, and his mouth, his lips, when he wasn’t scowling which was never, were perfect for speechifying and perhaps even kissing. Margaret motioned for Winnie to join them. She approached with trepidation as he looked at her from top to toe.
“You’re too young to play my mother!” he proclaimed in his trained, Richard Burton voice. He turned and glared at Margaret. The other actors watched. Winnie had no answer. Then he asked her how many times she had seen the show.
“Six,” she murmured. “And…and you, you’re just so wonderful.”
He set his jaw and strutted off to his dressing room.
The arduous task of plugging an understudy into Shakespeare’s best began. Winnie loved the play and Hank in the play, and that got her through the morning. All the actors except Misty, who’d been excused for the purpose of spending the day with her mother, came and went as their scenes were scheduled. They were overtly sympathetic and helpful, including Hank on occasion. On the lunch break, she sat in the lobby, script in hand, and ate a chicken wing and an apple out
of Tupperware. She faced the glass doors of the entrance, and when it started to snow, she mourned the death of the cherry blossoms that had bloomed early that year around the Jefferson Memorial. But she rejoiced, too, because she loved snow on Capitol Hill. All that white. The odd, unseasonable weather she took as a good omen.
By late afternoon she knelt over Ophelia’s grave and spoke, “Sweets to the sweet. Farewell.” Dizzy from all the direction, she paused and shook her head. “I…I can’t remember anymore.” The remainder of the speech, “I hoped thou shouldst have been my Hamlet’s wife. I thought thy bride-bed to have deck’d, sweet maid, and not have strew’d thy grave,” had not yet made its way off the page and into her head. She looked up at the actor playing Laertes.
“Michael, when I toss my bouquet of funeral flowers into the grave, can that be your cue for, ‘O treble woe?’ Can you take a visual cue? Just for tonight?”
“Of course,” said Michael. A long-time company member, he’d always been kind to her.
They broke for dinner with nods of encouragement, but Winnie saw they were relieved it was she and not them who had to face the horror to come. She’d known and conquered terror in the theatre before, in this theatre, in fact, the previous season. Always the bridesmaid, she was understudying then, too, and a similar call had come. On that particular Sunday evening, she’d made her entrance upstage onto a Juliette balcony as Inés in Calderon’s The Mayor of Zalamea and was struck dumb. It took three, perhaps even four beats and four actors looking up at her, waiting for her tongue to unlock itself. And once it did, she entered the world of the play and remained there until the curtain call, after which she was transported for weeks. Then as now she was a little in love with the actor playing the lead. She’d had to embrace and kiss that one on the lips. Hank would not kiss her in this production except on her forehead or the hand as she lay dead after drinking from the poisoned cup. That would be nice enough.
She walked alone to a nearby café and bought a slice of cheese pizza and a pop to go. When she returned to the theatre, a chrome stand stood in the lobby announcing her presence in the production in place of Alice Langford. Great, she thought, now the audience will know who to boo. She ate and studied in her cold dressing room. Then she laid out her towel on the table and unpacked her make-up. The only heat came from the naked light bulbs surrounding her mirror. The actors arrived with the cold on their coats. Most ducked their heads into her room and told her to break a leg. Some handed her cards with the same wish spelled out. Hank dropped a pretty postcard on her table addressed to the ‘Lustful Queen’ and signed, ‘Love, Hank.’ It was just what actors did.
Margaret called fifteen then five then places, and Winnie found a folding chair in a corner backstage with just enough light to read by. Scene by little scene unfolded without a miss. The actors played their parts and anticipated her. Whatever they felt offstage, they established a sympathetic rhythm under the lights. Whenever Winnie stepped into their holy space, she was the interloper, the one who inspired wariness. The unknown. The unsifted. She sensed the other actors’ eyes and ears trained on her ready to pick up the pieces she might drop. But she omitted one line only. And it happened in the closet scene, when she was alone with Hank during the apparition of his father’s ghost.
The ghost in the production was a voice over a loudspeaker. Hank turned to her, frantic. “Do you see nothing there?” he demanded. Winnie answered, “Nothing at all; yet all that is I see.” Then Hank, “Nor did you nothing hear?” Winnie hesitated. She sat in amazement at his passion and beauty. He mistook her admiration for forgetfulness and like a speeding train he ran over her lovely line, “No, nothing but ourselves,” and shouted, “Why, look you there how it steals away!”
She felt cheated.
And moments later when he turned his anger on her for sleeping with his uncle, he yanked the cameo from around her neck. True, it hung on a trick chain secured by a thread, but still she wept at the shock and violence of it and saw he was pleased to move her to tears.
In the final scene after she’d fallen from “the drink, the drink, oh, my dear Hamlet, the drink. I am poisoned,” and after Michael hit Hank with the poisoned poniard, he crawled over to her dead body and kissed her on the cleavage. “Wretched Queen, adieu,” he said. In that moment, she knew what it felt like to rise from the dead, but she couldn’t move because it was only a play. At the curtain call, Hank’s bow was appropriately the last, and he took it, but then he turned upstage and reached for her and presented her like a gift to the audience. Lucy waited for Winnie in the lobby and cried when her sister appeared. Together, they waltzed out of the theater into the cold spring night and hailed a cab adjacent to the lighted dome of the Capitol. No matter she had to clean teeth in the morning. Nothing mattered that evening, the first evening she played Gertrude to Hank Brody’s, Hamlet.
Actors who devote their lives to Shakespeare, in particular his tragedies, hang suspended in a state of acute perception and awe for at least the run of a show. The more dead bodies littering the stage as the last, usually rhyming, couplet is spoken, the more susceptible the actors are on stage and off. Every actor is aware of the perils of performing Macbeth, the darkest jewel in the Bard’s box; they are notoriously burdened by accidents both serious and ridiculous, in the theatre and out. So it was that Alice Langford missed the rest of the run, never to return again to that snake pit of a production.
And as far as Winnie’s ability was concerned, the administration agreed that the understudy who cleaned teeth by day seemed up to the task at night and even had some decent moments.
The following day, Winnie returned to work and played the mouse. To avoid suspicion, she kept her evening appearances a secret until the following week when she announced her break with glee and invited all her co-workers to the show. No one was mad at her. Even Carl insisted he come to see her play the Queen on the Hill.
Winnie wanted to freeze time, especially those moments she shared with Hank on stage. Jesus on the cross, she thought, I’m playing incest on top of committing a sin against the ninth commandment, the one about coveting thy neighbor’s wife – which included husbands! Hank was married but rumors circulated about his serial carousing in the Capitol Hill bars most nights after the show came down. Why not carouse with her? And whenever she pondered that, she felt there was indeed something rotten in the state of Denmark. He was married, and she was sober. Her carousing days were long over. Still. There was always club soda. She wanted him off-stage whatever the circumstances and consequences. But he wasn’t interested. He never asked.
With less than a week remaining, Misty’s mother died and panic rippled through the company. Winnie, the reigning Queen of Elsinore, was still the official understudy for the role of Ophelia. How could she play two parts at once? There were too many overlapping scenes. Otherwise, management may have proposed double casting her. Everyone knew that a cursed production, probably Hank’s doing, could rarely right itself. But a suitable remedy appeared in the form of a diminutive actress down from New York rehearsing the part of Hermia for the next show, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The little brunette model of ambition had just played Ophelia four months earlier in Cleveland and was happy and willing to go on.
Hank was deranged over the announcement of a second casting shuffle in three weeks. He gathered the cast on stage and delivered a venomous speech urging a cancellation of the matinee in question. He railed against the producer and pointed to Winnie as an example of their money saving tactics. “The fuckers,” he shrieked. “They’ve got you working here on the cheap, and it’s a crime. You ought to go to your union and complain. In the case of this bloody matinee, I advocate we take a vote and inform the pricks we won’t go on.”
But the company members who wished to remain company members thought the show must go on, and it did. Ophelia Number Two stepped into the part on the day of the funeral and had all her lines. How clever of her, Winnie thought, in a catty moment. Both Ophelias were petite and hailed from New York. Winnie was envious of both of them. When she was tired and thought hard about it, she hated them. Misty returned for the Saturday evening performance and buried her father Polonius on stage as she’d buried her mother that morning. Her mad scene swelled to bursting. Fresh raw grief elevated her expression to genius. As Gertrude, Winnie had watched it nightly, but that evening she wept ‘til her nose ran like a faucet. She turned discreetly upstage and wiped it on her velvet sleeve. Yes, Ophelia Number One soared in her madness over lost loved ones, and every actor on stage witnessed the gorgeous event. Some girls have all the luck, Winnie thought. And then she remembered at what cost to Misty and heartlessly, artistically reconsidered; some girls have all the luck.
The following day was Sunday, the final two performances. Winnie was despondent. Tomorrow he’d be gone on a flight back to England, and she would never see him again. Between the matinee and evening performance, she knocked on his dressing room door and presented him with a closing night gift. She’d found out from the actor who played Horatio that Hank liked brandy, so she’d splurged and bought him an expensive bottle. He lit up at the sight of it, thanked her warmly, and stashed it under his make-up table. She knew it wasn’t her he was happy to see; it was the bottle. She bit her lip, wished him well, and left the room.
Why she hadn’t waited until the end of the evening to give it to him haunted her silly for months after. And why did she, the one who’d quit drinking, buy booze for the drinker? It was a misdeed, like giving a pound of truffles to a diabetic. But she knew what he liked and she wanted him to be happy. Was it for her or him? She wanted him to fall in love with her at the sight of the brandy. But for him it was the drink. The giver hardly mattered.
“He’s loaded,” Rosencrantz said to Guildenstern. They lingered in the wings; Winnie overheard them on her exit and cringed. My fault, she thought.
Hank made his entrance in the closet scene to confront Winnie with her sin. This was her favorite scene. It was long and physical. He was always passionate and stern with her. Part priest, part lover. He entered for the last time and seemed wilder than usual, with something amiss around his eyes. Or was it his hair? She hoped he was as desperate as she with the knowledge that this was it, their last opportunity for intimacy, tainted or not.
At the top of the scene upon hearing a voice behind the arras and believing it to be the King, Hank shouted as usual, “How now, a rat?” He unsheathed his heavy sword and stabbed the “rash intruding fool” - in reality a pillow behind the curtain - proclaiming, “Dead for a ducat, Dead.” And then with untoward recklessness, he yanked the sword out of the pillow/body and the chaos began. He lost his grip on the weapon’s handle. Dumbfounded, he and Winnie watched it fly, not, by some lucky fluke, into the audience because it would have killed a patron or two. Instead, it flew across the entire length of the stage and disappeared through the stage left blacks into the wings where they heard it hit the wall of the theatre with a crash before it clattered to the floor. “Oh, me what hast thou done?” Winnie gasped her line, not acting anymore. He looked at her and responded, “Nay, I know not, is it the King?” but she saw that he was thinking hard about how and when he might run off and retrieve the weapon in the dark. He whipped the upstage curtain aside and conveniently discovered not a pillow but Polonius, and sprung at her, commanding, “Leave wringing of your hands. Peace, sit you down and let me wring your heart, for so I shall if it be made of penetrable stuff . . .” Oh, she was certain it was. Cupid laboring on his behalf had made it so.
He thrust her into the flimsy Renaissance style chair downstage left, then fueled by adrenalin, ran off to find his sword. The force of the push and her weight on the chair sent it tipping backwards until it teetered on its two upstage legs. She hovered with her legs dangling off the floor in imminent danger of disaster. She cried out. He turned and watched. They both knew he was too far away to help her. She had to save herself. She knew that Queens of Denmark didn’t wear panty hose until modern times and the audience would cease to care about Shakespeare’s drama if they saw her upended, legs and gown flung skyward, and her bottom exposed in control tops. Worse, if she fell over and broke her neck, they’d worry about her, not Hamlet. With vanity, the play, and her life in peril, Winnie closed her eyes and threw all her weight forward. The chair crashed down on all four legs and when she opened her eyes, Hank was in place, sword in hand.
Their adrenaline combined could have murdered a moose, yet they still had a long scene to play. It crossed her mind she might not survive it. She rose on her next line and crossed to him, but the hem of her gown, trapped under its front legs dragged the chair until the bottom of her skirt came apart. No, she thought, I won’t survive this. And just as the scene seemed to careen into farce, Hank held her and played what remained of it with tenderness.
But it wasn’t over. There was more fire to come backstage. Hank had insulted Misty in undertones on stage during the play within the play. They were blocked to sit together on the floor with their backs to the audience. The entire company was on stage for the scene and he’d mumbled obscenities throughout. At the second intermission, the young actor playing Fortinbras who was unabashedly in love with Misty, waited for Hank in his dressing room and threw the first punch. Hank hit back. Horatio ran down the hall at the first sound of the scuffle and separated them. As usual the on-stage relationships spilled off, and Horatio and Winnie were the only friends Hank had by the end of the run.
Winnie burned with guilt over the brandy until the final scene when Hank, mortally wounded, crawled to her and kissed her on the lips. If she hadn’t been dead she’d have reached up and pulled him to her and held on so tight he would have missed his plane to London. The curtain fell, and she cried. How could she face not seeing him six nights and two afternoons a week? And what about the life and death stuff of the stage, both the make believe and the real? God. All teeth and no Shakespeare was a prospect as bleak as mid-January.
The cab driver sailed through empty Sunday streets. She paid him and climbed the stairs to her apartment, her arms loaded with make-up bags, empty vases, cards, and souvenirs. When she’d slipped it into her purse, she told herself the costume department would never miss the beaded snood she’d worn as Queen of Elsinore. Winnie opened the door and saw the red light shining, even and steady on her Panasonic. No new messages.
She undressed, set her alarm clock for 6:30 AM, and crawled into her giant bed with her cat at her feet. Wide awake in the dark she reviewed her glorious day.
Tragically, tomorrow would dawn normal.