The Shakespeare Lady

Schizophrenia, Addictio n Reduce Once-promising Actress/writer To Street Theater 


NEW HAVEN — Many people once gladly paid to see her grace the stage of ``The Rep,'' Yale's famed Repertory Theater. But for the last six years, Margaret Holloway has had a different sort of audience.

Often found on the steps of Willoughby's Coffee House in the downtown arts district, her arena of choice, Holloway seems to be known to nearly everyone.

They like her act. The 53-year-old "Shakespeare Lady'' does an instant monologue for instant change, from Hamlet to Chaucer. Her favorite is seven lines of Medea's speech to Jason in Euripides' classic story of a woman betrayed.

"I like the Robinson Jeffers version,'' she says, rubbing her tongue against the roof of her mouth before reciting the American playwright's adaptation:

"What! feeble night-bird overcome by misfortunes beats at my door!? Can this be that great adventurer, the famous lord of the seas and delight of women, the heir of rich Corinth -- this crying drunkard on the dark doorstep? -- Yet you've not had enough! You have come to drink the last bitter drops. I'll pour them for you.''

The irony is lost on her.

While Holloway says she's still popular -- "People tell me all the time I'm their favorite actress'' -- she's more of a novelty, and to some an increasingly frustrating one.

To certain bartenders of the Irish pub Anna Liffey's, Holloway's performances -- and her occasionally aggressive requests for the price of admission -- are hurting their business.

Some residents of the new condominiums surrounding New Haven Green move to the other side of the street when they see Holloway approaching.

And to former friends and colleagues from the Yale Drama School, where she earned her master of fine arts in 1980, the Shakespeare Lady is a painful reminder that even those with a lot of promise can fail.

Hers is a tragedy of theatrical proportions, propelled by schizophrenia and drug addiction.

Still, earlier this year, there was new hope for recovery. After Holloway was jailed in late 2004 for the fourth time in a year on offenses ranging from disturbing the peace to trespassing, the community rallied around her, vowing to help her get back on her feet.

In June, the state dropped charges against Holloway on the condition that she stay on her medicine for schizophrenia, stay off illegal drugs and stay out of local businesses. Her court-appointed conservator, local attorney Arnold Amore, submitted her application to reside in public housing, which also hinges on her good behavior.

But Holloway keeps leaving the script. On a recent Tuesday night, a rail-thin Holloway, clad in an orange T-shirt, jeans and a tattered black blazer, stood on Church Street, keeping one eye out for possible contributors and the other (bloody and swollen from a run-in with a neighbor) watching for police determined to clear the street of panhandlers.

Seeing one presumed fan, then another, she called to them by name and waved, talking of her injury and of her possible eviction from the rooming house in which she lives, a residence rife with housing code violations.

The conversations end with a plea for money.

"Her struggles sort of bear out all of ours. She is a product of her best talents and shameful weaknesses,'' said Rosemarie Paine, a local lawyer who sees Holloway nearly every day. ``She's playing them out in front of all of us.''

Trouble With The Law

Paine, who considers herself a friend of Holloway's, got to know her in 2000 at Willoughby's, where she placed change in her calloused hand because a monologue lifted her mood. She represented her in 2002, when Holloway started raising the ire of many businesses and the police. In November 2002, Holloway was arrested for blocking the entrance to the Gourmet Heaven store. More arrests followed. Paine can't remember how many times she has stood in a courtroom, urging the dismissal of charges against Holloway.

Law-enforcement records dating from early 2004 chart the escalating problems.

In February 2004, police arrested and jailed Holloway for breach of peace after another dispute with the manager of Gourmet Heaven. Four months later, disorderly conduct was the charge when a police officer on foot patrol noticed her engaging in loud ``sociopolitical banter with Anna Liffey's patrons'' before asking them for money. July brought a confrontation with Anna Liffey's owner, Patrick Mansfield, and Holloway's arrest. In August, Holloway was arrested after panhandling congregants during a Mass at St. Mary's Church. The report listed her at 90 pounds, down from 125 in February.

"People were very angry with us, but we were looking for an intervention,'' said Brother Gerard Thayer of the arrest.

On Oct. 1 a New Haven judge ordered that she be tested at Whiting Forensic Institute in Middletown, where she was judged competent for trial. On Dec. 20, Paine could not persuade the judge that Holloway could stop smoking crack and begging aggressively. The attorney saw her client off to jail, where she remained for three months.