Hopping up and down to stay warm on fall’s first bitterly cold Saturday afternoon, a Danish actress named Sybille Bruun licked a rosy fingertip peeking out of her black glove and, between violent shivers, turned her script’s page.
“Art cold?” she read. “I am cold myself.”
Ms. Bruun, a 28-year-old with downy white skin and a blond braid hanging from under a black wool hat, had embarked with her bearded partner, Matt Walley, 31, on the mission of reading all of Shakespeare’s plays in front of the dog run on the west side of Union Square. Against a backdrop of barks and growls and the distant, impassioned calls for the President’s impeachment, the two actors have been slogging through one play every day, since Oct. 26, despite the at times plunging temperatures.
At noon on Saturday, they had begun soldiering through a three-and-a-half-hour performance of King Lear, the 8th longest play in the canon. They used a bare minimum of props: peacock feathers for swords, a yellow kazoo for a trumpet and a clown’s horn that they honked when money fell into their cardboard donation box. Sucking on cough drops, sipping tea and nibbling chocolate bars, they bravely battled the fitful elements.
“Blow, winds and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!,” cried Ms. Bruun, adding later, “It’s absolutely freezing.”
While Lear had it rough on the heath, the two actors had their fair share of setbacks and madness to contend with in the park. Around the time that Mr. Walley exclaimed, “This cold night will turn us all to fools and madmen,” an actual madwoman ran up to them and screamed, “Give me one line of Shakespeare, accurate!”
Ms. Bruun shrugged, “Yeah, we get that all the time.”
A few scenes later, a man in a North Face coat carrying plastic bags full of pumpkins shouted in their faces, “I don’t understand a word you are saying!” Another guy, in soiled sweatpants, stood a few feet away examining the broken headphones he was using as earmuffs. Behind him, a man with old newspapers in his arms and a deranged gleam in his eye hissed, “Silly hat,” at their costumes. During the quiet monologues of Lear’s Act II, a guy serving a community service sentence noisily emptied garbage cans. Act III fell victim to a kid bouncing on a pogo stick.
Even when the actors were spared the heckling of critics, they still had the critters to worry about. During a Wednesday evening performance of Hamlet — which according to Ms. Bruun, “was so fucking long, we ended it in the subway, I was just too cold” — the fair Dane saw something sinister scurrying in the grass.
“I thought it was a rat,” she said. “I moved very quickly away. If I think they are around, I just stand on the fence and pretend I’m a king or something.”
On Saturday afternoon, the armies of dogs in sweaters had their turn. As King Lear suffered betrayal at his daughters’ hands, terriers and bulldogs in suede or hand-knit coats chased each other in the dog run. As Ms. Bruun pulled her hat over her eyes to affect the blinded Earl of Gloucester, two basset hounds copulated to their breeder’s applause.
After all that, the actors announced that they were taking a well-deserved intermission, so Mr. Walley could use the bathrooms in Virgin Records or Staples and look for something hot for them to drink.
During the break, Ms. Bruun, whose accent slips from British to the American one she picked up during her time reading Shakespeare in the warmer environs of Tucson, Arizona, explained that, while “about 70 percent” of passersby completely ignored them, they had established a small fan base and took in an average of nearly 30 dollars a performance.
On Thursday, during a reading of Macbeth, a police officer interrupted to offer a few lines of the rousing “We few, we happy few” speech from Henry V, while on another morning a homeless woman recited from The Merchant of Venice. Others, Ms. Bruun said, think they know some verses, but really just make them up.
“I caught something once about oceans,” she said, bewildered.
Then the cold wind blew again and Mr. Walley returned, scowling.
“I went to like three places,” he said. “There was nothing hot. Everything is cold. And unless I go to Starbucks…” It was clear that was no longer an option, because Mr. Walley quit his day job there on Thursday to concentrate more on auditions and Shakespeare. “This is the skill I have,” he explained.
Somewhat dejected and munching on graham crackers, the thespians got back into character. At roughly 3:30 pm, Lear was finally dying with grief over his faithful daughter’s body.
“I kill’d the slave that was a-hanging thee,” read Mr. Walley.
“And I just killed another beer!” answered a red-faced man who was circling the park with his zipper open.
George and Hilly
Our seventh session of couple’s therapy got off to a slow start.
GEORGE: You want me to go?
DR. SELMAN: Whatever you like.
GEORGE: On the walk over I passed a group of about forty joggers, clapping and laughing, and I felt nauseated. There’s something about group activities..I went from that, to thinking about how I wanted to be a pro basketball player in 7th grade, I remember the coach showed me this picture of this guy from the Houston Rockets and said, `George you could be that guy, but you know what you gotta do? You gotta sweat your balls off.’ That made me lose interest in the whole idea. So I went from that to thinking about marriage and weddings.
HILLY: I was not actually a real team player, either, when I was growing up. And if I was playing any sports and I lost, I would tell the other people that I hated them….Just as long as we’re talking about weddings: I think every girl has some kind of a fantasy about the day she gets married — well, mine has always been to not have a big to-do. It’s too much of a show.
GEORGE: Yes, I hate them and I refuse to go to them. And when I get an invitation, not only do I not feel joy for the couple, I resent getting the invitations. That’s nice to hear you feel the same way Hilly.
HILLY: My fantasy wedding would be to go somewhere—like me and whoever it is that I’m marrying — and then max, five people. Including the people who clean up afterwards. Me, the person I’m marrying, the person performing the ceremony. I told my parents, too, because it’s something you have to talk about as a girl growing up. I said they didn’t have to worry about the cost of anything except the only thing I’d require is a very beautiful Valentino dress. Not a wedding dress, just a beautiful dress that I can wear again. And maybe if I were able to have a small cocktail reception, just celebrate the occasion with a few close friends and family members.
DR. SELMAN: So you both agree on small weddings?
GEORGE: Or the toasts. Those toasts are often…pukeworthy. The other awful image I have is when the bride and the groom have to go out and do their little spin on the dance floor and everyone’s watching and going, `Oh what a beautiful wedding.’
HILLY: Not if you have a party with no dancing allowed.
GEORGE: And the bride—they have their little serious moment together and he gives her that reassuring look: “Oh I got everything under control dear, this time tomorrow we’ll be in Mexico.”
DR. SELMAN: So you guys have been talking about marriage?
HILLY: I told him I wanted a ring.
GEORGE [standing, moving toward refrigerator]: She wants an engagement ring. Can I go get a Diet Sunkist?
DR. SELMAN: Good time to take a beverage break.
DR. SELMAN: A wedding ring. You know at the Fairmont Copley Plaza in Boston, I think for about 1500 dollars you can order a martini that comes equipped with a one carat engagement ring.
HILLY: Well, I told him he doesn’t even have to spend any money! He can get in from his grandmother Gimma. Or his mother. And if he wants to spend the money, then it’s probably going to be a long time, because I have pretty high taste when it comes to that.
GEORGE: Yeah I think I said-
HILLY: You said, “No.”
GEORGE: I don’t think I was crying, but I may have been inwardly. I said that I can’t even take care of myself, have trouble paying the rent, paying Dr. Selman.
DR. SELMAN: She asked you to marry her?
GEORGE: She said she wanted an engagement ring. I don’t know how these things work. Then she said no one will have to know, and it won’t really count. I think she’s going to honor what I said the second night I met her, three and half years ago—that I don’t want to get married until I’m 40. I felt a little pressured.
DR. SELMAN: When was this?
GEORGE: A couple days ago. Then we had a nice conversation and she cooled it down a little. I know all these things are cliches, all these things guys say—I don’t want to be tied down, etcetera. But I think we should think one day, one week, one month at a time. Basically let me get myself under control—stable. Not rush into things. Because this is in your interest, too. [To DR. SELMAN] Let me ask you: do you think it would be a good idea for the two of us to go to Las Vegas and get married-
HILLY: I don’t want to get married.
GEORGE [to DR SELMAN}: What do you think about the next few months: Would that be a good idea for us to get married, at our current juncture?
HILLY: I think it’s good for us to plan for something. It’s a good way to think, maybe if we were planning on doing this in three, five, six years, we have this much time to get our acts together, to make it something that will work out. And if we can’t do it, and we have to call it off, that’s fine.
GEORGE: I asked Dr. Selman.
DR. SELMAN: What difference does it make what I think?
GEORGE: We’ve been here seven or eight times and now it’s time for interpretations. Do you think it’s a good idea in the next year?
DR. SELMAN: To get engaged, or get married?
GEORGE: Well people get engaged and then they usually get married a year later right?
HILLY: Some people are engaged for years.
DR. SELMAN: Well, what was the point in coming here?
GEORGE: I think the point in coming here is we’ve been going out and want to improve the relationship, find out more about each other-
DR. SELMAN: But it seems like there are three things that could occur. One, you could get engaged and at some point get married or not get married. Two, you could break up. Three, you could maintain the status quo.
GEORGE: No, let’s just say…don’t some people stay together for…don’t people have kids and not get married? Or is that just Hollywood?
DR. SELMAN: I don’t get your point.
GEORGE: Don’t people live together, not get married, have kids and stuff?
DR. SELMAN: There’s no law about that. Would you do that?
DR. SELMAN: Not an option?
DR. SELMAN: I didn’t think it would be an option.
HILLY: I might possibly consider living with someone if I were engaged. But engagements can be called off very easily and you don’t need a lawyer. You just say buh-bye. Take the ring off and that’s it.
GEORGE: I already got you a ring.
[HILLY claps her hands, looks happy]
DR. SELMAN: Got her a ring?
HILLY: Oh…this ring?
HILLY: Well he got me this ring last year, but it didn’t even work. I had to come up with the idea, I had to pick it out. Didn’t I even have to go pick it up?
DR. SELMAN: It’s on the wrong hand.
HILLY: That’s because it’s a promise ring. A pre-engagement ring.
GEORGE: Oh, I’m really sorry; you thought when I just said, `I got you a ring,’ that I got you an engagement ring?
GEORGE: Hilly, I can’t-
HILLY: I thought from your mom or something.
GEORGE [to DR. SELMAN] What do you think about an engagement ring?
DR. SELMAN: Well, I think if you want to get engaged it’s probably a good thing to get. Let me ask you something: If I said one way or another, is that going to actually influence you?
GEORGE: No, but I’m just really curious. We know I have to cut back on the drinking, be on these anti-depressant drugs. Though these drugs are making me think of Alex in A Clockwork Orange, like I’m about to get a lobotomy or something. It’s totally ridiculous, I know. Tons of people take anti-depressants and I can just try them for a couple weeks.
DR. SELMAN: Whether or not you decide to get engaged, it really is a separate issue as to whether or not you work on these other issues for yourself. Personally, she just asked you to get engaged when you’re like this. So let’s say you take medication or you stop drinking and you become a nicer guy—maybe she won’t like you so much anymore.
GEORGE: Can you say that again, rephrase that?
DR. SELMAN: A few moments ago you likened yourself to Alex in A Clockwork Orange who was a psychopathic murderer.
GEORGE: Can I just clear—
DR. SELMAN: Now if you theoretically changed that, maybe Hilly wouldn’t like you so much. She knows how you are now, and she asked you to get married or get engaged a few nights ago.
GEORGE: Can I just—
HILLY: George thinks that it’s possible that if we spent more time together, maybe lived together, then maybe it would help curb some of his behavior. At which point I said, “Well, you know, I could see how that would probably work, but I can’t live with anyone unless I’m married.”
DR. SELMAN: Your relationship works the way it is, such as it is. If you start making behavioral changes in each other, it’s all up for grabs.
HILLY: He keeps on doing things he doesn’t tell me about. He goes out late and he does this stuff. He thinks that if he has to report to me, maybe he won’t be able to get away with that. And it’ll be better for him in the long run.
DR. SELMAN: Why do you put up with it, though?
HILLY: I don’t know sometimes. I mean, because I love him. But sometimes it literally drives me to drink.
GEORGE: I’d like to clear something up. I wasn’t comparing myself to Alex in A Clockwork Orange. I don’t think he killed anyone. I’m making a comparison between whatever they did with him, that drastic action, that brainwashing therapy, and taking these anti-depressants. I realize that’s kind of a stretch.
DR. SELMAN: He killed the woman who was the sculptor.
GEORGE: Oh, he hits her over the head with the penis sculpture, that’s right.
DR. SELMAN: My point is that Hilly loves you the way you are. And if you choose to change yourself, maybe she wouldn’t love you so much.
GEORGE: Why, cause some girls like `bad boys’? Hilly used to be in love with Tommy Lee and Bon Jovi. Am I a bad boy?
DR. SELMAN: What is it you love about George?
HILLY: Everything except his dishonesty.
HILLY: Your talent, your wit, you’re so handsome, you’re sweet and kind and generous. Funny.
GEORGE: I’ve never heard that from anyone else but thanks, that’s really sweet. Yeah, she’s really amazing. Um, yeah.
HILLY: Everything except for your dishonesty and some of your friends. Your bimbo friends.
GEORGE: I kind of like hanging out with women friends. I don’t think you like me even being friends with women.
HILLY: Well not with drunken Mata Hari sluts that are going to throw themselves on you.
DR. SELMAN: So do we agree that whether or not you should get engaged is separate as to whether or not you should make those changes with yourself?
GEORGE: In other words getting engaged is not going to solve anything?
DR. SELMAN: She’ll take you either way. Is that true?
HILLY: Nuh-uh. I won’t take him forever without a ring.
DR. SELMAN: That’s not what I meant. I meant that you would take him if he continues being the way he is, depressed and drinking too much-
HILLY: No. Depression is one thing. It’s the dishonest behavior that I can’t-
DR. SELMAN: What dishonest behavior are you referring to?
HILLY: Just like staying out really late and not telling me.
GEORGE: One thing I’ve been thinking about is…Hilly how old are you now? When women get to be 31 or so, they start to think about kids right? After 35 or 38 or so, it’s more difficult?
HILLY: No I’m not thinking about kids. I want a ring. I want to be engaged. I want a dog, a Scotty dog and a ring.
DR. SELMAN: How long are you going to put up with this?
HILLY: I don’t know.
GEORGE: Do you feel like you’ve invested a lot of time and emotions into me and our relationship and you’re not getting enough dividends, it’s not bearing fruit?
HILLY: It’s more like…I don’t know if security is the right word. It’s more like I’d like for you to, I guess, return to me what I feel the emotion is I give to you.
GEORGE: And you also don’t want to end up like…
HILLY: A spinster? I don’t think I have a lot to worry about quite honestly. [laughing]
GEORGE: I agree.
HILLY: I mean if we break up or something I’m sure I won’t have any trouble getting a date.
GEORGE: I know.
DR. SELMAN: If you get engaged — let’s say theoretically George says, “Okay let’s do it.” You said before that you would like for him to be able to return to you the kind of emotional feelings you give to him. Now what if he’s not able to do that? What if he’s able to say “Okay, let’s get engaged and here’s the ring.” But the rest of it doesn’t come?
HILLY: I don’t know, I think you cross that bridge when you come to it.
DR. SELMAN: Well you may be at that bridge.
[to be continued]
George and Hilly published 10/24/05
George and Hilly published 10/17/05
George and Hilly published 10/10/05
George and Hilly published 10/03/05
George ’n’ Hilly, Back in Couples, Turn on the Doc published 09/26/05
But Should We Get Married? Part III published 08/29/05
But Should We Get Married? published 08/15/05
Should I Get Married? My Hilly Joining Me In Couples Session published 08/08/05