My Night of Surprises with Frances McDormand and Shakespeare

Written by | Columnists and Letters, Lifestyle

Paul Hagen

It did not start out as a good night. my then-boyfriend Jonathan and I had fallen into a pattern of fighting — particularly about whether we were spending more social time with his people or mine. It was an argument I had no chance of winning that evening, as we were set to spend it with Jonathan’s mom. His parents — avid patrons of the arts — had invited us to a theatrical event that sounded somewhat unusual and turned out to be even moreso.

The idea was to make Shakespeare more accessible by — instead of asking audiences to absorb one of his epic masterworks in one night — breaking it down. Each night would feature a different act of a play and a different cast. Rather than simply perform the material, the evening would be structured as a rehearsal. Actors would perform bits of scenes and then discuss them with the director, seeking motivations or goals to pursue before trying them again in hopes of bringing new life to the scene. Despite my wretched mood, I’d thought we’d made out rather well. Our night was dedicated to the final act of Othello, so we’d get to see the scene where *400 year-old spoiler alert* Othello murders his wife Desdemona and some first-rate gloating and scheming by the show’s great villain, Iago.

But, as it turned out, there would be just as much drama offstage as on. Our first surprise was when the director hobbled in — bruised, bloodied, arm in a sling, it turned out he’d been violently carjacked just the night before. He told us he considered not coming, but instead shared the grisly story in shocking detail. His tale took up most of the first hour of the evening, but certainly set the stage to explore a story that comes to such a violent finale.

The evening’s other great surprise was that they had cast in the role of Emilia (Desdemona’s attendant and Iago’s wife) none other than the extraordinary Frances McDormand. She absolutely lit up the stage each time she took it, and when she wasn’t onstage — true to the spirit of the evening — she would hunker down in the audience to observe the other actors as they worked. For an entire scene, she claimed an extra chair next to Jonathan, his mother and me. I remember being spellbound looking at her face — so familiar though I’d never before seen it in person, so beautiful without a hint of make-up, her hair swept up in a kerchief. She offered sly observations and made us laugh with little jokes. She was so cool.

If you’d asked me before attending whether the scenes could still offer the emotional heft that they would have as the climax of the full show, I would have answered: most certainly not. Nevertheless — blame my state of mind or the surprise introduction, the intoxicating presence of a movie star or the fact that as an actor and playwright I had spent some of my most special nights puzzling through a script in a theater very much like that one — but I found myself connecting deeply to Othello’s jealousy and grief, Desdemona’s vulnerability, Iago’s sinister logic, Emilia’s righteous dismay. As we applauded at the end of the evening, I found tears creeping out of the corners of my eyes.

It would turn out to be one of the last nights out as a couple for Jonathan and me after nearly six years of trying to figure out how to make it work. But it was a night that prepared me well for what lay ahead. I had not wanted to go to the theater that night after fighting, but had been richly rewarded — just as I would be rewarded with new joys after leaving behind the relationship that I’d feared losing for so long. Like the director, there would be days when I’d feel too damaged to want to leave the house but would be forced to find the resolve to do so anyway. And during those moments when I was most sad, I could hang on to the endlessly smile-inducing memory of sitting in a dark theater chatting with Frances McDormand as though we were colleagues. Shakespeare is frequently quoted for his line, “The play’s the thing.” But at times “the thing” is the crime that you suddenly encounter, or the fight you have just before leaving the house, or the fabulous actress who sits down next to you in between scenes. And the play — well, that’s just what happens to bring it all together.

Last modified: May 15, 2018