I first “trod the boards” forty years ago, at a regional theater in Arlington Heights, Illinois, as young Winthrop Paroo in “The Music Man.” I was pushed forward for the role by my uncle Francis, who was playing Mayor Shinn and thought me the solution to a crisis. The original actor had turned sixteen, clearly too old for Winthrop; his agent and mother (hard to tell the two apart) felt he should break free of childish roles, and most of all should be in movies, not on an inconspicuous stage.
That actor went on to a rewarding career in soft porn, cast opposite a series of young women selected chiefly for their admirable breasts, so I suppose he can’t complain. As for me, I clasped hands with Mayor Shinn and Marian the Librarian for my first curtain call, and my life changed.
Today I no longer get leading-man roles, and I’m not yet old enough to play Lear or Falstaff, or even Willy Loman. But I stay in shape, and with skilled makeup I can be almost any indispensable middle-aged man in the theatrical canon. Examples are the two roles I had last summer at the Shaw Festival in Ontario: Colonel Pickering in “My Fair Lady” and Friar Lawrence in “Romeo and Juliet.”
Some peers view regional festivals as mercenary, a way to make money over the summer. Actors certainly need incomes, and doing two or three diverse plays in six weeks beats waiting tables. I also embrace the mentor’s role as one of the more seasoned actors in a company. I had a further self-interest. In October I was slated for a twelve-week run on Broadway as Iago opposite the Othello of Denzel Washington. I would have to be on my game, and I meant to re-learn the role entirely while at Shaw, using “Romeo and Juliet” to re-acclimate myself to the Bard’s voice and rhythms.
When I arrived in Niagara-on-the-Lake, the director, Anthony Ciano, was already in town for rehearsals and we met in the bar at the Prince of Wales Hotel. Tony has never looked like a theatrical director. If anything, a high school math teacher hanging on to retirement, having given up on his students’ ever knowing the difference between pi-r-squared and two-pi-r.
“Wait till you meet your Romeo,” he said to me when we had gotten our pints and settled into a niche that looked out at the fountain in Simcoe Park, and, beyond a screen of low buildings and trees, to the softly lit afternoon sky above Lake Ontario.
“Cameron Something,” I said.
“Hart,” Tony nodded. “Cameron Hart. His female followers, who seem to be falling out of the trees, call themselves Hart Throbs.”
“Never heard of him,” I said.
“You will. He’s Namor, the Sub-Mariner,” Tony said. He noted my blank look and went on, “One of the original Marvel Comics stable of variously gifted superheroes,” he said. “Namor can communicate with all the creatures of the deep, both swim and fly at incredible speeds, project the power of the electric eel, and blah…blah…”
Here he gazed briefly into his beer before adding, “…blah.
“The movie rights have been bouncing around for decades,” he went on, “with various claims and counter-claims and denials. But evidently it all got sorted out, they held a nationwide search for the right Namor, and our little Cammy Hart turns out to be him.”
“And how does such a star come to be in Canada?”
“He wasn’t a star when his agent booked this gig,” Tony said. “They had no idea how brightly Fortune was about to shine on him. The movie wrapped about four months ago, and it’s had a few previews around the country in the last two weeks, which have apparently gone quite well. He’s also your Freddy in ‘My Fair Lady.’”
“Can he sing?” I asked.
“When you see him, that question will lose all meaning,” Tony said. “The film is everything you would expect from a comic book movie. You never have to wonder how they managed to spend a hundred million. Every last nickel is right there on the screen. Except they didn’t spent much on Namor’s costumes. They’ve got Cam wearing as little as possible as often as possible, consistent with a PG-13.”
“Hence the Hart Throbs,” I said, and Tony lifted his glass in a toast.
“He also displays an impressive collection of tattoos,” Tony said. “I’m not sure that’s authentically Elizabethan…”
“…but we’ll see what makeup can do about them. By the way, when I met with Cam the other day, he also made it clear he wants to do Romeo and Juliet’s morning-after scene in the nude.”
I smiled. “Of course he does. What does Becca say?”
“Rebecca, the dear, has absolutely and unequivocally ruled it out. We may be in for a little head-butting.”
I thought of Rebecca Malone, with whom I had last worked two years before, as the Bishop of Beauvais to her Saint Joan. “Becca may be petite and delightful,” I said, “but she’s also solid steel.” Tony smiled.
“Joan of Arc,” he said, raising his glass again.
When I arrived at rehearsal later on they were fencing. Tybalt had just killed Mercutio and Romeo, pursuing him in rage, flicked his saber overhead. Cam was in gym shorts and a gray T-shirt, his florid, incomprehensible tattoos on full display. I nodded at Tony, who was watching from the tech table in the second row, and behind him, Becca Malone gave me a small wave.
“Thou wretched boy, that didst consort him here, shalt with him hence,” Tybalt shouted, raising his sword. Cam-Romeo lunged at him with impressive vigor, and Tybalt slipped adroitly away from the thrust.
“You have a line first,” Tybalt said.
“Line!” Tony bellowed at the ceiling, and the script girl, two seats away, looked down at her loose-leaf binder and read, “This shall determine that.”
“This shall determine that,” Cam repeated, nodding. “This shall determine that, and then we fight.”
“Let’s pause,” Tony said. “Five minutes.” Tybalt turned without a word, picked up a towel and water bottle, and fled. Cam approached me with hand extended.
“Glad to meet you, Jeff. Is it okay I call you Jeff? I’m a big fan of your work.”
I smiled, shook his hand, and considered asking him to name something in which he had seen me. He beat me to it.
“My mother took me to see ‘Arcadia’ in Chicago, and you were Septimus Hodge.”
“Ambitious play for a child,” I replied, noting his jibe about our ages.
“I didn’t understand any of it,” he said with an extravagant smile, then added, “Well, I need some air.” He took the side-aisle steps three at a time and disappeared. I noticed that he left by the theater’s front door, clearly preferring a visible walk down Queen Street to five minutes next to the trash bins in the alley.
When he was gone the tiny theater was silent. Tony, leaning back in his seat, closed his eyes and breathed deliberately. Becca stood and walked slowly across the stage.
“He needs air,” Tony said at last. “He also needs to read the fucking play.”
“Is it really that bad?” I asked. He rubbed the bridge of his nose. “It’s all Klingon to him,” he said. “And we have three days left. Six hours of rehearsal.”
“I’ll work with him,” Becca said. “We’ll just run lines until he knows them.”
Tony stood. “He doesn’t even know the words,” he said. “How is he going to get the rhymes and the meter? How is he going to do the poetry?”
“We will all work with him,” I said, but Becca shook her head. “No, if he starts to feel ganged up on it will only be worse.”
She was staring vaguely up into the seats and I thought, she has an actor’s face, a face that can convey or conceal anything. Only two years ago she had been a plausible ignorant peasant girl, aflame for the Lord’s work. Had she aged? Just a little, but she was somehow entirely different. Her body was still lean, still appealing, perhaps more muscular than before. Her face, though, had left youth behind and become that of an adult woman who was done rehearsing for life. Faced with a professional fiasco, she was going to make it work, somehow.
Romeo and Tybalt returned, with the various Montagues and Capulets. For a moment the entire ensemble simple stood on the stage. The back stage door, still open, cast a wedge of bright light onto the floor and silhouetted Tony as he gestured to Cam to join him.
“We’re going to move on,” he said. “Do the scene in the friar’s cell while we have Jeffrey here.” Cam nodded.
“You and Sidney can work out the swordplay,” Tony went on, nodding at Tybalt. “You only have to crash your swords together two or three times. Sid will make his death look good.” He looked again at Sidney, but Sid was closely examining the tip of his sword. Tony turned to Becca and said, “Juliet isn’t in this scene, and I doubt we’ll get any further this afternoon. Why don’t you call it a day?”
“I’d like to know how much work I have ahead of me,” Becca replied, folding her arms. Rather than averting her eyes she was staring frankly at Cam. Tony shrugged.
The staging was minimal, dictated by the tight dimensions of the space. A group of faux-stone platforms in an arc to one side, a low wall to the other, and a gap through which Romeo enters at my call, “Come forth, come forth, thou fearful man.”
Every actor has bad rehearsals. But not many, I hope, have spent three hours as I did that afternoon. In our scene, Romeo has killed Tybalt and fled to the friar’s cell, where he indulges in melodramatic misery. We proceeded in short bursts. I was surprised to realize he often had the more complex phrases in hand; it was the simpler parts, the connecting tissue, that escaped him. And he didn’t seem troubled by that.
“They’ll get the gist,” he said three or four times, and once, during a five-minute break, he let me know that all this damned flowery language was getting in the way of the story.
“It’s not about the story,” I said, and he answered, “No?”
“No,” I said. Cam seemed to weigh a reply, and in his moment of reflection I yielded to impulse.
“No,” I said. “Here’s what it’s about. Think back to the balcony scene.” I crossed the stage to where Becca was sitting in the second row, and addressed her. “Juliet, which would you rather hear from a young man you’ve just met? I could say, ‘damn, you’re hot!’” Here Becca giggled a little and I heard Cam moving uncertainly behind me.
“Or I could say, ‘I am no pilot, yet, wert thou as far as that vast shore wash’d with the farthest sea, I should adventure for such merchandise.” I watched her eyes. I am not a credible romantic match for a woman like Becca, yet I thought I read in her expression the great equalizing power of poetry. I thought of the moment in Rostand’s play when the lovely Roxanne realizes her young lover’s beautiful words have been old Cyrano’s all along.
“Merchandise,” Cam muttered behind me. “Very flattering.”
Becca held my gaze briefly, then seemed to shrug without moving and said, “Let’s continue.”
I have stayed in the same house every summer for eight years now, a guest cottage on the grounds of a larger house owned by two patrons of the festival, who were content to leave me in peace. I returned there slowly after the rehearsal, pausing to buy a small fish fillet and a fresh tomato. On the coffee table in the living room was my copy of “Othello,” open to where I had left off before meeting Tony at the hotel. I read through another dozen pages, knowing all the words of all the parts and exploring for some nuance I could use to set my Iago apart. The long summer evening was waning when I poured a glass of wine and cooked the fish. I was doing the dishes when a knock came.
I let Becca into the living room. She gestured to my wine glass and asked, “Got more of that?”
I poured. She sat on the sofa, drank. I waited.
“Here’s where we are,” she said. I waited. She held out her glass, and I poured again.
“Cam feels he only needs his memory jogged with key words and phrases every few lines in the major speeches,” she said. “Tony has all the young ’uns hard at work, even as we speak, printing out the said phrases so we can tape them to the backs of the stage fixtures and props. Now, he understands he can’t always be standing behind something, so he’s going to take some of these reminders and ink them on his arms, in the various open spaces in his tats.”
I began to chuckle.
“I’m glad you’re amused,” Becca said. “In between the big speeches, Cam thinks anything he says will do. He’s counting on the rest of us to keep things moving. He plans…” (she paused for a deep breath) “…to improvise.”
“What can I do?”
She shrugged and looked into her wine glass. “I told Tony it isn’t too late to have casting find us someone else, to tell Cam thanks a lot, we’ll be in touch…”
“But apparently ticket sales for both ‘Romeo’ and ‘My Fair Lady’ are through the roof because of Cam’s presence, and they don’t want to offend paying customers.”
“He might be okay in ‘My Fair Lady,’” I said.
Becca looked directly at me for the first time. “The world is not full of people who know every word of ‘My Fair Lady’ by heart,” she said. “In ‘Romeo’ they’ll be reciting along with us.”
I sat at the opposite end of the sofa, half-turned to her. The moment called for sage wisdom, but I had nothing.
“You know the worst part?” Becca said. “You know Cam is campaigning to get us both naked for the bedroom scene?”
I smiled. “Ignore him,” I said. “The festival won’t allow it, anyway. This is Canada.”
“I told him I’d give him an incentive,” Becca replied. “If he got everything right for the first performance, I’d go naked from the second night on.”
“Well, his improv plan will get you out of that,” I said.
“But I can’t believe I would even offer!” she said. “Why is he entitled to suggest it? Because he’s going to be a movie star?”
I began shaking my head. “Don’t work yourself up. It’s not going to happen. I’ll talk to Cam, or I’ll talk to Tony…”
“That’s not the point,” Becca said, rising. “He’s going to be a millionaire. And you…” She gestured to the open script on the coffee table. “You’re going to be on Broadway with Denzel Washington. And I’m offering to take my clothes off for a spoiled brat who can’t be bothered to learn his lines.”
I thought she might cry. Indeed her face contorted briefly, then she regained control and said, “so, that’s where we are. What are we going to do?”
I reached out and took her hand. “We’re going to do our best,” I said. “We’re all going to do our jobs like professionals, and Cam will be whatever he is. And it will go by.”
She drained her glass. “Well,” she said, “I have to go. Cam and I are going to run lines. I’m paying one of the interns to stay late, just to have someone in the room.”
Rehearsals for “My Fair Lady” overlapped those for “Romeo,” beginning the next day. Becca was not in the musical, but attended the rehearsals anyway, carrying a copy of “Romeo.” During breaks she went off with Cam and came back with face immobile and eyes evasive. Freddy Eynsford-Hill is a much shorter role than Romeo, and Cam seemed better prepared. Of course, I didn’t know every line of his role as I knew the Shakespeare, so he might have been ad-libbing wildly. Besides, Freddy doesn’t speak in famous rhyming couplets.
Before the final rehearsal Cam sent Tony a note pleading illness and promising everything would be just fine. I took his place as the inert body on the floor of the tomb as Becca awoke, discovered her beloved dead at her feet, and took his dagger in hand. She thrust it into her own breast as she said her final line: “This is thy sheath. There rust, and let me die.” She fell forward across my chest and I felt her weight, smelled her hair. In that moment I knew Becca as intensely desirable. I have often felt this about actresses, and disciplined myself to reject it.
Tony declared himself satisfied. Becca and I picked ourselves up.
“Know how we could improve this scene?” she whispered.
“Put it at the beginning,” she said, and as she turned away from me she added, “Or have extra daggers for the audience.”
When one is prepared for disaster, any lesser misadventure can seem a deliverance. Even in that context, though, I was startled, on opening night, to realize Cam Hart was doing fine. He was hitting all of his cues and delivering even the most complex lines with confidence and something like Shakespearean style. He would be more than good enough. At intermission he closeted himself in his dressing room, emerging as the house lights dimmed. Becca came to him, punched him in the arm and smiled.
Afterward we had champagne in the tiny backstage area, and I arranged to meet Tony later on in the hotel bar. Anxiety had spread through the entire cast, and now the mood was a multiple of normal first-performance euphoria. I shook Cam’s hand and told him sincerely, “Good job.”
“I was terrified,” he said. “I pulled an all-nighter last night, just like in college.”
“Seemed to work,” I said. Becca appeared at my side and kissed my cheek.
“Wonderful,” I told her as Cam split off to accept other praise. The audience had all gone, so we moved out onto the stage. She thanked me, looked at Cam’s back as he shook hand after hand, and said, “I guess you can still hate him, if you want.”
“I don’t hate him,” I said. She smirked.
“Of course you do,” she said. “But he’s put me in touch with his agent. I talked to her on the phone this afternoon. She wants me to come to California and meet some people.”
“Good for you,” I said, and meant it. The main chance comes rarely to young actors, and if Becca didn’t seize it, she was a fool. She had certainly earned it, by saving our production almost single-handed. She squeezed my hand and said, “Maybe I’ll see you later, in the bar?”
“Sure,” I said. I made ready to slip out, shaking a hand here and there, making my way to the alley door because I suspected a large crowd still waited out front for Cam. Just before I opened the door I looked back into the theater and saw Cam and Becca going up the aisle. Cam had his arm around Becca’s waist and as they reached the top of the stairs he slid his hand down to cup her behind. She didn’t seem to object. So much for the great equalizing power of poetry.
I had indeed hated Cam Hart, for being frivolous and disrespectful to what I loved most. Then he had learned his role almost overnight, and Becca, obviously, had helped. Now I hated him for being good enough, and being satisfied with good enough, and for having Becca and giving her something she wanted, and for feeling so entitled to grope her. And she was going to Hollywood, whether with high hopes or high cynicism, I could not tell. I suddenly felt eager for “Othello.” I was primed to be Iago, to vomit out my hate and spite.
A quiet beer with Tony Ciano would work wonders, I knew. Meanwhile, I stood by myself in the alley. Something moved near the trash bins. A soda can fell to the patched concrete and rolled slowly to the edge of the grass. I heard cheering from the street, and wanted to shout obscenities. Instead, I looked at the sky and whispered.
“Oh, I am fortune’s fool.”
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