July Column from Irish American News

Alls Well That Ends Well

Mike Houlihan

I’ve been referred to as “The Baron of Berwyn” over the last couple of years and it’s caused some to wonder how I came to be so titled.

I guess it goes back to my days as a Shakespearian actor in the mid-seventies.

Shakespeare’s garden was just adjacent to the theatre where I was happily employed for four summers in my days as a young thespian.

Nestled along the Housatonic River in Stratford, Connecticut was where I spent some years as a “classical actor” at the American Shakespeare Theatre, sort of like high school summer camp in your twenties, with some very eccentric hams and hamsters.

I was 24, carrying spears and drinking in the gorgeous words and world of Willie. There were about a dozen of us youngsters in the company that first summer of ’73, along with about twenty more character actors, kings, queens, and princes. It was an acting company of theatrical artists and those summers were romantic travels through the world of the plays, the lyrical planet we played on.

Behind the balcony of the huge old wooden theatre was a private bar for the acting company known simply as “the club”. The cast would unwind there after doing a matinee of “Romeo & Juliet” and evening “MacBeth”.

We lived in a parallel world there, during the day and into the early evening you could be hunting Hotspur or on the heath with Lear. We’d laugh and weep on the stage and then try to revert back to the “real” world” for drinks upstairs, in the club.

Those worlds began to blend on hot summer nights out on the deck drinking cold beers in the moonlight.

One night up in the club, I looked out the double doors to the deck and walked out towards the moon setting on the river. I looked up at the stars and felt the breeze from the river on my face; turned and saw a damsel standing just down the railing from me gazing into the constellations as well. The music from the club wafted lazily through the mist and I approached her on the balcony. We knew the plays and we knew the plots and we flirted in Iambic pentameter.

I look back fondly on those summer nights at Stratford, long after the final curtain, strolling through the upper lobby with Olivia… Maria… Ophelia… or wenches without names. The walls were covered with huge paintings of the scenes from Shakespeare’s Plays, florid, dramatic, and wonderful.

Looking at the paintings we saw the actors who played our roles hundreds of years before us, our ancestors, who spoke the same words as they played our parts. Look, that’s you.

Heightened emotions were our stock and trade and things could get theatrical very quickly.

“Have you seen the garden?” she said.

Not yet, but thy countenance tells me I’m gonna.

“Come with me to the garden.” And she’d take you by hand and lead you down the stairs and around the back to the poetry.

The garden was planted by the guy who played Julius Caesar, an old queen who had volunteered for years to grow the herbs and plants that are mentioned in the Bard’s classics. I think he used to cultivate his own weed in that garden too, and smoke it with the boy who plucked his lute onstage.

Shakespeare’s garden was the scene of many an assignation in my salad days.

Ingénues arms entwined in the garden followed by passion awakened with whispering sonnets in the moonlight as a slight misty rain fell upon their shoulders.

The next morning it would be the tittle-tattle of the dressing rooms of Capulet and Montague and romance was the buzz of the thespians from the green room to the crappers. Had Juliet run off to Shakespeare’s garden that hot summer night and been seen embracing one of the servants from the Capulet household? No, not Romeo, but Houli!

That world still springs vibrantly back into my mind whenever I see any of those paintings from Shakespeare. I owe Willie big time for the memories in the world of his plays.

It was just a few years later in Washington D.C. that I found myself again in the world of Willie, this time in “Alls Well That Ends Well”. The great romance of my life began when I discovered the lovely Mary playing Diana. She’s been my leading lady ever since.

But now on hot summer nights I whisper sonnets to her on our balcony in Berwyn, high above the BNSF train depot, where the fragrance of honeysuckle has been replaced by the aroma of diesel fuel.

We’re no longer ingénues, but Mookie the wino on the bench watching us below in the depot doesn’t care. He spies lovers on the balcony and eavesdrops on our flirtations.

“Shall I compare thee to a summers day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st.”

And then I thought I heard Mookie exclaim, “Man that Baron is one smooth mofo!”

And so I am, the Baron of Berwyn.


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