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Sir, Spare Your Threats

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Wild Card, Lilith Demos, Replaces Esteemed Director of the Hudson Valley Playhouse’s Winter’s Tale, Following Wardwell’s Nervous Collapse

In any other circumstance, Lilith might have rejoiced at a project such as this falling so unexpectedly into her lap. The cast was star-studded and likely to drum up huge sales. The location was idyllic, with a mesmerizing view of the Hudson Valley. The producers were offering her twice what she would expect to be paid for directing regional Shakespeare, and she hadn’t even had to apply for the position; she was stepping in for a woman named Mary Wardwell, who had apparently suffered a nervous breakdown and quit after just a week of rehearsals. Lilith couldn’t imagine passing up an opportunity like this to work with such high-profile actors on a piece as engaging as The Winter’s Tale. It really was a perfect job, on paper.

If only her leading actors hadn’t just come out of a nasty, excruciatingly public divorce.

Spellman vs. Blackwood would go down in infamy as one of the most memorable divorce cases in recent history. The press had had a field day with it, milking the story for all it was worth. After all, it wasn’t every day that a beloved and critically acclaimed actress battled an equally famous actor for custody of her stepchildren.

While Faustus was a talented and powerful actor in the industry, it didn’t surprise Lilith one bit that he was also a terrible choice for a husband. She had heard horror stories about his mercurial nature and his dark moods that tended to play out onstage. There were whispers in her theatre circle that he believed that women should not be directors, and so he was especially difficult whenever he was forced to work with one.

Perhaps Mary Wardwell, her predecessor, simply didn’t have what it took to handle that kind of misogyny on a daily basis. Satan knew Lilith had no tolerance for it, and planned to make it very clear to Faustus that he ought to get over his prejudices immediately if they were to be working together.

What worried Lilith the most, however, wasn’t Faustus’ temper, but the fact that the cast of Winter’s Tale was made up almost entirely of the Spellman and Blackwood family members. The producers had explained to her that the casting decisions had been made with the hope that this production would be a reality-tv level goldmine for the theatre, and pay for many seasons to come. Certainly, once the press had received the casting notice, there was no end to the free marketing and publicity. No one could believe that Zelda Spellman would agree to work with her ex-husband after she failed to gain full custody of her stepchildren in the divorce, let alone that her extended family would also join the cast in supporting roles.

It was hard for Lilith to believe herself, though she knew that the producers were paying everyone handsomely for their troubles. It could all just be a matter of money, though she doubted that an actress of Zelda Spellman’s caliber could ever be bought with such dirty money, when surely, she knew that the producers would be profiting off her pain?

It left a bad taste in Lilith’s mouth, but there was nothing to be done about it. If the producers wanted a cash cow, then by all means, she would give them one. She just hoped the paparazzi wouldn’t distract from the actual artistic work they were creating. As it was, she had had to beat her way through a crowd of cameras just to get into the theater.

“All right, you lot,” said Lilith, looking around at her actors, who were seated in the audience of the otherwise empty theater. “I know this production has gotten off to a rough start, but I’m here to make sure the show goes on without a hitch.”

Lilith heard a scoff towards the left side of the group.

“Mr. Blackwood, do you have something to say?”

Faustus eyed her with derision. “Oh, I have plenty to say, but you wouldn’t want to hear it.”

Dad,” said a young boy, who couldn’t be more than six years old. This must be Judas, then, Lilith thought. His twin sister, Leticia, sat to his right, fiddling with the early pieces of her costume. Due to child labor laws, the casting director had contracted both children to play Mamillius, the Prince of Sicily.

“You think you can step in and save a doomed project? Fine. But the producers are going to have hell to pay for putting us all up to this farce.”

Lilith saw several cast members shift in their seats. Clearly, this was a sore subject for many of them.

“You signed a contract, Faustus,” said Lucifer Morningstar, who would be playing Polixenes.

Lilith’s stomach flipped. She and Lucifer had dated for four years when they had just graduated from college, but the relationship had been a toxic one, and she’d made it a point to avoid working with him ever since. Agreeing to do this project had come with the knowledge that she’d have to see his devilish smile again, but she was certain she could handle it. Over twenty years had passed since those days, and though she could never forget what it felt like to be under his control, she was certain she had the strength to face him, now.

“I agree it’s an…unconventional cast list, but you could have refused,” continued Lucifer, but when he said it, he wasn’t looking at Faustus—he was looking at her. Lilith stared right back, refusing to be the first one to break eye contact.

“Unconventional? It’s practically incestuous,” said Ambrose Spellman, a stand-up comedian who would be playing the Clown, whom Lilith recognized from the tabloids. He was always stirring up trouble in Hollywood, which resulted in him spending a lot of time in and out of prison for minor offenses. Lilith was surprised that he would take time off from his comedy circuit to do a production of Shakespeare in New York.

“Ambrose, please,” said Hilda Spellman. Lilith could already imagine hearing: what studied torments, tyrant… filling the theater. It was a truly inspired decision to cast Zelda’s lesser-known sister in the role of Paulina, even if the casting director had an ulterior motive that was not at all talent-based.

Placing a hand on her nephew’s arm, Hilda continued, “You know the producers were going for a ‘real’ family angle.”

Lilith had to bite her tongue at that. Yes—so long as the “real” family was famous and worth their weight in gold.

Sabrina Spellman, a spoiled child star if there ever was one, pulled a face. “I don’t see why they think casting a ‘real family’ will change anything. It’s not like I’m even Auntie Zee’s real daughter.”

Silence fell in the theater, as everyone pointedly looked away, in case Zelda Spellman reacted poorly to that comment. But Zelda just sat quietly, clutching the long scarf around her neck with a white-knuckled grip. Her chin quivered slightly before she straightened in her seat. Lilith didn’t have to imagine her as Queen of Sicily; she already radiated regality.

“Oi,” said Hilda, turning to her niece. “Show some respect to the woman who raised you.”

Lilith took a deep, steadying breath. Was this why Mary Wardwell had run for the hills? Was the cast so uncooperative, nothing could get done? She wasn’t about to tolerate domestic squabbles in her theater.

“Look, as Mr. Morningstar said, we’ve all signed our contracts. So, let’s make the best of it, shall we?”

There was a murmur of agreement from the cast, but Lilith had eyes only for Zelda, who had remained remarkably silent through all of the unpleasantness. The stoic woman didn’t show any sign that she agreed, or even that she was listening, besides the stiffness of her spine.

“Ms. Spellman?”

Zelda’s eyes were sharp, but tired, when they met Lilith’s gaze. Her long red hair had been flat-ironed so that it fell in a straight curtain down her back and in front of her chest. Lilith mourned the loss of the wavy curls that she remembered from the last time she saw the woman in London (in a riveting production of A Doll’s House, which earned Zelda an Olivier Award) but caught herself in the middle of that thought. It was deeply unprofessional to be thinking of her leading lady in that way. Zelda could style her hair however she pleased—or rather, she could style it however the hair and makeup designers decided.

“Would you and our young Mamillius care to start us off with Act II scene i?”

Zelda’s eyes blinked twice before she nodded. When she stood, she did so slowly, carefully, with her script tucked under one arm, and it was only then that Lilith began to wonder if her leading lady might be ill. She was moving sluggishly, as if it were a considerable effort just to stand, and she had yet to speak.

Judas, in contrast to Zelda’s slow pace, moved as fast as a bullet, beating his sister to the punch. He launched himself from his seat, ran to his stepmother, and grabbed her by the hand. Lilith refrained from smiling at the enthusiastic boy as he tugged Zelda up the stairs, onto the stage, because Satan knew she needed to keep up her reputation as a “shrew,” and couldn’t afford to let her actors see her softer side, especially if the cast was going to be as difficult as their discussion had just implied.

“Prudence? Agatha? You too, ‘Ladies.’ And Faustus, we’ll have you wait in the wings, stage right, with your Lords.”

There was a general mumble of compliance as everyone got on their feet, with scripts in hand. The producers had informed Lilith that Mary Wardwell had managed to block the first two acts before abandoning the project. Lilith was eager to see what she was working with, and how much damage control she’d have to do.

“Whenever you’re ready,” said Lilith, nodding to Zelda to begin.

Zelda Spellman sat center stage, using a black box for a chair. She smiled as Judas pulled on her hair, climbed up her back, and slung his arms around her neck. Zelda then made a show of placing her hand on her belly, which would soon be fitted to have padding to make Hermione appear nine months pregnant. The boy nearly kicked her stomach in all of his rough-housing with his mother, and so the Queen said:

Take the boy to you: he so troubles me,

'Tis past enduring.

Zelda’s voice filled the theater with ease. Lilith wasn’t surprised. She had seen Zelda perform before, and had never doubted her ability to project into the large, empty space. A shiver went down Lilith’s spine. Zelda was putting on a very deep and melodic voice to play Hermione, and it was having a surprising, if incredibly unwelcome and highly distracting, effect on the director.

Prudence, playing the First Lady, moved to help disentangle the boy from the Queen:

Come, my gracious lord,

Shall I be your playfellow?

Judas refused to allow Prudence to take him, and instead climbed into Zelda’s lap, pulling on her scarf as he said to the First Lady:

No, I'll none of you !

Well, that blocking needed to change. Judas would never be able to fit in Zelda’s lap when a pregnancy belly was there. And so, the scene continued, with Lilith making mental notes of what to change and what to keep. It wouldn’t do to change too much, since they had already lost of week of rehearsal.

It wasn’t until Faustus entered the stage that she was struck by a sense of foreboding. She couldn’t quite put her finger on it, but it was as if the energy in the room and on the stage had completely shifted from the warm, domestic scene it had previously been to something…else. When he went to take Judas away from Zelda, it felt like the cast, both onstage and in the wings, were collectively holding their breaths.

Give me the boy: I am glad you did not nurse him:

Though he does bear some signs of me, yet you

Have too much blood in him.

Zelda clutched Judas to her like her life depended on it, her voice gone slightly higher in Hermione’s confusion:

What is this? sport?

Faustus turned to his Lords, all fine, young, strapping men:

Bear the boy hence; he shall not come about her;

Away with him! and let her sport herself

With that she's big with—

One Lord grabbed Judas and wrenched him from Zelda’s arms; the other forced Hermione to stay seated while the boy was taken away, the actor’s hands heavy on her shoulders as she struggled to break free. But it was Faustus who had Lilith’s attention, as he advanced on Zelda with nothing but malice in his eyes and said:

—for 'tis Polixenes

Has made thee swell thus.

He spat the name “Polixenes” as if it were a curse, and brought his hand to Zelda’s stomach. He pushed it hard into the fabric covering her abdomen on the word “swell,” and Lilith almost called for the scene to stop when Zelda flinched back into the actor behind her, who was still pinning her in place by the shoulders.

Was the flinch for the audience’s benefit, or was it real? Was Faustus really hurting her, or had Mary Wardwell directed them to do it this way? As the scene continued, Lilith got more and more worried that she was bearing witness to something dark and twisted—and not entirely just because it was what Shakespeare had written.

She would have to speak with both Zelda and Faustus, Lilith thought as she watched Faustus rant and rave about the supposed affair Hermione had had with Polixenes, while Hermione insisted that she was innocent. It wasn’t the blocking that made this scene difficult to watch; it was the way Zelda’s eyes were shining with fear and panic, rather than righteous indignation at being falsely accused of a crime.

Yes, she would have to speak with Zelda, because that look was one she had seen in her own mirror, in a life that seemed so far away, though it grew closer by the minute as Lilith caught sight of Lucifer’s smirking face in the wings.

He was watching her. Why was he watching her, when every other actor in the theatre seemed fixated on Faustus and Zelda? Nausea settled in her stomach when Lucifer winked at her before disappearing behind a curtain.

What on earth had she gotten herself into?