The scene: a slice of a suburban house in West Hartford, Connecticut. Upstairs, a double bed just contains the supine body of the actress, Lois Smith, now eighty-seven, who—barely mobile, on oxygen, in her nightgown—conveys more rage and sorrow and dark humor than almost anyone else on the New York stage this spring. Smith plays the title role in “Peace for Mary Frances,” written by Lily Thorne and directed by Lila Neugebauer, at the Signature Theatre. She’s dying, gasping for air, attended by her two avaricious, love-hungry daughters. Halfway through the play, I realized that I was waiting for someone. And then, there she was, in the second act, the third sister, the play’s Cordelia, who appears disguised as a West Indian hospice nurse, radiantly played by Melle Powers, who guides Mary Frances on her journey to death, and who, unlike the play’s Goneril and Regan, is simply doing her job—gracefully acquitting the responsibilities of her station. She sits by the bed reading the family Bible, and Mary Frances insists she take it with her, as a gift. Don’t you want to keep it, for your family? she asks. Pshaw, shrugs Mary Frances.
Shakespeare, Shakespeare, everywhere. This spring, I saw four Shakespeare productions in the course of several weeks: “The Winter’s Tale,” at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center, in Brooklyn; “King Lear,” performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company, at BAM; “Henry V,” at the Public Theatre, as part of the Mobile Unit Project; and the Classic Stage production of “Twelfth Night,” also at the Polonsky. Everything, including the subway, took on a bardic cast. “Come what come may, time and the hour runs through the roughest day,” I found myself muttering, at the Seventy-second Street turnstile. And, at any time at all, I found myself pronouncing, “Think’st thou that duty shall have dread to speak when power to flattery bows? To plainness honor’s bound when majesty falls to folly.”
The plays were written at breakneck speed, for theatrical deadlines, to be played in front of audiences, with no thought of future scholars. They were not to be read on the page by anyone except a company of actors, who, as we do still, found their own lives there writ small and writ large: love and the lack of it, mortality, the lure of power and backstairs conniving, family strife, the hope of fairy-tale endings, or at least starts. (“I want to marry Harry,” read a thousand T-shirts worn along the road at Windsor.)
This spring, supporting roles took center stage. In “The Winter’s Tale,” Mahira Kakkar’s Paulina was whip-smart, her every gesture drawing a blueprint of Leontes’ downfall as she pinned his mad suspicions to a plan in which he was truly deceived. At the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of “King Lear,” I was not alone in seeing, as if for the first time, why Goneril and Regan were transfixed by Edmund, played by the preternaturally alert Paapa Essiedu, with calculating sexuality—the audience visibly stirred each time he appeared—and Oliver Johnstone’s portrayal of the denounced Edgar, naked and smeared with mud, another of Shakespeare’s misunderstood, filial children, was nuanced and moving. In “Henry V,” Patrice Johnson, as Montjoy, the messenger, on whom so much depends, was a spidery, electric go-between, and reminded me of another messenger of the New York stage this season: Amanda Lawrence, the riveting angel in “Angels in America,” at the Neil Simon Theatre. In “Twelfth Night,” Joshua David Robinson, his hair in blue dreadlocks, was a striking Feste whose compassionate sagacity deepened a neatly whimsical production.
On April 16th, Shakespeare’s birthday, at the Public Theatre, the lobby was quiet before the performance of “Henry V,” by the Public Theatre’s Mobile Unit, a troupe of young, or youngish, actors who bring condensed versions of the plays to New Yorkers in the outer boroughs and to those who may have difficulty getting to the theatre, such as people who are incarcerated. Sitting next to me on a bench, waiting to see if he and his mother had won tickets in that night’s lottery, was Rocco Papa Greanay, who is in the sixth grade at Park Slope Collegiate, in Brooklyn. We struck up a conversation. “So far,” he told me, “I’ve seen ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’; ‘The Tempest’; ‘Hamlet,’ twice, once on screen with Benedict Cumberbatch; and last year I saw ‘The Tempest,’ with an all-women cast. That was pretty cool.” He paused. “They were on an island, which is a little what a stage is like, I think. This year I’m doing ‘Romeo and Juliet’ at my school, and I’m Juliet!”
Last summer, he saw the Public Theatre production of “Julius Caesar,” in Central Park, in which Caesar wore an orange Donald Trump wig. Rocco grinned. “I think my favorite character in Shakespeare is Brutus.” I shot him a quizzical look. “I like that they didn’t like something in the political atmosphere, and, hey, they changed it!”
The Public Theatre’s Mobile Unit is distinguished by zest. That evening, many in the enthusiastic audience were former members of the Mobile Unit, who responded with brio when the actors took the stage. The production took “Henry V” through its paces, like a tour bus rounding corners at high speed: the tennis-ball scene, a little Harry in the night at camp before the battle of Agincourt, the St. Crispin speech. The final colloquy between Henry and Princess Katherine, of France, in which he asks for her hand (“Break thy mind to me in broken English, wilt thou have me?”), was played not as a screwball romance but as a #MeToo moment, in which the King takes Kate in a chokehold. The decision seemed in step with the times but out of step with the text: both Henry and Kate have known since the age of reason that pigs will fly before they can marry for love.
One of the things that most struck me, watching this spring, in a time during which our national life seems almost incomprehensible, is how comprehensible the stage is: the curtain rises and falls—or, these days, if there’s no curtain, at some point, at least, the play starts. Actions occur and resolve. When we go to see “Henry V,” one of the tricks we play on ourselves is that while we know the plot, in the best case, we see the story as if for the first time. At BAM, the R.S.C.’s “King Lear” opened with shroud-draped bodies in attitudes of grief ranged around a tar-covered stage. But in the first scene we don’t know what will happen, nor does Lear—it’s an endgame domestic drama, one that unfolds every day, in West Hartford living rooms and in lawyers’ offices.
About suffering, the old master was never wrong. The writer and illustrator Maurice Sendak once told me that his favorite plays were the later ones—“Pericles,” “Cymbeline,” “The Winter’s Tale”—because they are plays for the old: the dead are not dead. The return of the lost beloved first appears in “Twelfth Night,” when Viola and Sebastian, after their ship splits off the coast of Illyria, both presume the other to have perished, but they are restored to each other at the end of the play. In the late plays, Marina is returned to Pericles, Imogen to Cymbeline, and Perdita, the lost girl, left to die on a beach in Bohemia, to Leontes.
One of the haunting questions of “The Winter’s Tale” is the fate of Leontes’ son Mamilius, who dies of grief after he is told that his mother, Hermione, is dead; at the close of the play, he alone is not restored. This spring, across the country, there were five school shootings, resulting in eleven deaths and nineteen injuries. Children who are lost can return, but the dead, in “The Winter’s Tale,” or “King Lear,” or in Newtown or Parkland, cannot. Even the stage will not countenance a suggestion that they can.
On Shakespeare’s birthday, at the very last minute before the lights dimmed, Rocco and his mother won seats in the ticket lottery, and, as he settled down in his seat, he turned and gave me a cheerful thumbs-up, full of expectation. The summer promises to be full of Shakespeare, too. This weekend, theatregoers who missed all or one of the vibrant trio of plays performed at St. Ann’s Warehouse last year, after their run in London at the Donmar Warehouse—“Julius Caesar,” “Henry IV,” and “The Tempest”—directed by Phyllida Lloyd and with Harriet Walter in the title roles, could see the film versions at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, and finish up their warm-weather moviegoing with a ride on the waterfront carrousel. Starting Tuesday, the New York Classical Theatre will open “Romeo and Juliet” in Central Park, and then move to other parks throughout the city; the Public Theatre’s Shakespeare in the Park opened this week, with “Othello,” and with “Twelfth Night” to follow in mid-July. Another chance to hold back tears.