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The time: September 1997, my fourth and final year at Dellecher Classical Conservatory. The place: Broadwater, Illinois, a small town of almost no consequence. It had been a warm autumn so far.
Enter the players. There were seven of us then, seven bright young things with wide precious futures ahead of us, though we saw no farther than the books in front of our faces. We were always surrounded by books and words and poetry, all the fierce passions of the world bound in leather and vellum. (I blame this in part for what happened.) The Castle library was an airy octagonal room, walled with bookshelves, crowded with sumptuous old furniture, and kept drowsily warm by a monumental fireplace that burned almost constantly, regardless of the temperature outside. The clock on the mantel struck twelve, and we stirred, one by one, like seven statues coming to life.
“’Tis now dead midnight,” Richard said. He sat in the largest armchair like it was a throne, long legs outstretched, feet propped up on the grate. Three years of playing kings and conquerors had taught him to sit that way in every chair, onstage or off-. “And by eight o’clock tomorrow we must be made immortal.” He closed his book with a snap.
Meredith, curled like a cat on one end of the sofa (while I sprawled like a dog on the other), toyed with one strand of her long auburn hair as she asked, “Where are you going?”
Richard: “Weary with toil, I haste me to my bed—”
Filippa: “Spare us.”
Richard: “Early morning and all that.”
Alexander: “He says, as if he’s concerned.”
Wren, sitting cross-legged on a cushion by the hearth and oblivious to the others’ bickering, said, “Have you all picked your pieces? I can’t decide.”
Me: “What about Isabella? Your Isabella’s excellent.”
Meredith: “Measure’s a comedy, you fool. We’re auditioning for Caesar.”
“I don’t know why we bother auditioning at all.” Alexander—slumped over the table, wallowing in the darkness at the back of the room—reached for the bottle of Scotch at his elbow. He refilled his glass, took one huge gulp, and grimaced at the rest of us. “I could cast the whole bastarding thing right now.”
“How?” I asked. “I never know where I’ll end up.”
“That’s because they always cast you last,” Richard said, “as whatever happens to be left over.”
“Tsk-tsk,” Meredith said. “Are we Richard tonight or are we Dick?”
“Ignore him, Oliver,” James said. He sat by himself in the farthest corner, loath to look up from his notebook. He had always been the most serious student in our year, which (probably) explained why he was also the best actor and (certainly) why no one resented him for it.
“There.” Alexander had unfolded a wad of ten-dollar bills from his pocket and was counting them out on the table. “That’s fifty dollars.”
“For what?” Meredith said. “You want a lap dance?”
“Why, are you practicing for after graduation?”
“Fifty dollars for what?” I said, keen to interrupt. Meredith and Alexander had by far the foulest mouths among the seven of us, and took a perverse kind of pride in out-cussing each other. If we let them, they’d go at it all night.
Alexander tapped the stack of tens with one long finger. “I bet fifty dollars I can call the cast list right now and not be wrong.”
Five of us exchanged curious glances; Wren was still frowning into the fireplace.
“All right, let’s hear it,” Filippa said, with a wan little sigh, as though her curiosity had gotten the better of her.
Alexander pushed his unruly black curls back from his face and said, “Well, obviously Richard will be Caesar.”
“Because we all secretly want to kill him?” James asked.
Richard arched one dark eyebrow. “Et tu, Bruté?”
“Sic semper tyrannis,” James said, and drew the tip of his pen across his throat like a dagger. Thus always to tyrants.
Alexander gestured from one of them to the other. “Exactly,” he said. “James will be Brutus because he’s always the good guy, and I’ll be Cassius because I’m always the bad guy. Richard and Wren can’t be married because that would be gross, so she’ll be Portia, Meredith will be Calpurnia, and Pip, you’ll end up in drag again.”
Filippa, more difficult to cast than Meredith (the femme fatale) or Wren (the ingénue), was obliged to cross-dress whenever we ran out of good female parts—a common occurrence in the Shakespearean theatre. “Kill me,” she said.
“Wait,” I said, effectively proving Richard’s hypothesis that I was a permanent leftover in the casting process, “where does that leave me?”
Alexander studied me with narrowed eyes, running his tongue across his teeth. “Probably as Octavius,” he decided. “They won’t make you Antony—no offense, but you’re just not conspicuous enough. It’ll be that insufferable third-year, what’s his name?”
Filippa: “Richard the Second?”
Richard: “Hilarious. No, Colin Hyland.”
“Spectacular.” I looked down at the text of Pericles I was scanning, for what felt like the hundredth time. Only half as talented as any of the rest of them, I seemed doomed to always play supporting roles in someone else’s story. Far too many times I had asked myself whether art was imitating life or if it was the other way around.
Alexander: “Fifty bucks, on that exact casting. Any takers?”
Alexander: “Why not?”
Filippa: “Because that’s precisely what’ll happen.”
Richard chuckled and climbed out of his chair. “One can only hope.” He started toward the door and leaned over to pinch James’s cheek on his way out. “Goodnight, sweet prince—”
James smacked Richard’s hand away with his notebook, then made a show of disappearing behind it again. Meredith echoed Richard’s laugh and said, “Thou art as hot a Jack in thy mood as any in Italy!”
“A plague o’ both your houses,” James muttered.
Meredith stretched—with a small, suggestive groan—and pushed herself off the couch.
“Coming to bed?” Richard asked.
“Yes. Alexander’s made all this work seem rather pointless.” She left her books scattered on the low table in front of the fire, her empty wineglass with them, a crescent of lipstick clinging to the rim. “Goodnight,” she said, to the room at large. “Godspeed.” They disappeared down the hall together.
I rubbed my eyes, which were beginning to burn from the effort of reading for hours on end. Wren tossed her book backward over her head, and I started as it landed beside me on the couch.
Wren: “To hell with it.”
Alexander: “That’s the spirit.”
Wren: “I’ll just do Isabella.”
Filippa: “Just go to bed.”
Wren stood slowly, blinking the vestigial light of the fire out of her eyes. “I’ll probably lie awake all night reciting lines,” she said.
“Want to come out for a smoke?” Alexander had finished his whiskey (again) and was rolling a spliff on the table. “Might help you relax.”
“No, thank you,” she said, drifting out into the hall. “Goodnight.”
“Suit yourself.” Alexander pushed his chair back, spliff poking out of one corner of his mouth. “Oliver?”
“If I help you smoke that I’ll wake up with no voice tomorrow.”
She nudged her glasses up into her hair and coughed softly, testing her throat. “God, you’re a terrible influence,” she said. “Fine.”
He nodded, already halfway out of the room, hands buried deep in his pockets. I watched them go, a little jealously, then slumped down against the arm of the couch. I struggled to focus on my text, which was so aggressively annotated that it was barely legible anymore.
PERICLES: Antioch, farewell! for wisdom sees those men
Blush not in actions blacker than the night
Will ’schew no course to keep them from the light.
One sin, I know, another doth provoke;
Murder’s as near to lust as flame to smoke.
I murmured the last two lines under my breath. I knew them by heart, had known them for months, but the fear that I would forget a word or phrase halfway through my audition gnawed at me anyway. I glanced across the room at James and said, “Do you ever wonder if Shakespeare knew these speeches half as well as we do?”
He withdrew from whatever verse he was reading, looked up, and said, “Constantly.”
I cracked a smile, vindicated just enough. “Well, I give up. I’m not actually getting anything done.”
He checked his watch. “No, I don’t think I am either.”
I heaved myself off the sofa and followed James up the spiral stairs to the bedroom we shared—which was directly over the library, the highest of three rooms in a little stone column commonly referred to as the Tower. It had once been used only as an attic, but the cobwebs and clutter had been cleared away to make room for more students in the late seventies. Twenty years later it housed James and me, two beds with blue Dellecher bedspreads, two monstrous old wardrobes, and a pair of mismatched bookshelves too ugly for the library.
“Do you think it’ll fall out how Alexander says?” I asked.
James pulled his shirt off, mussing his hair in the process. “If you ask me, it’s too predictable.”
“When have they ever surprised us?”
“Frederick surprises me all the time,” he said. “But Gwendolyn will have the final say, she always does.”
“If it were up to her, Richard would play all of the men and half the women.”
“Which would leave Meredith playing the other half.” He pressed the heels of his palms against his eyes. “When do you read tomorrow?”
“Right after Richard. Filippa’s after me.”
“And I’m after her. God, I feel bad for her.”
“Yeah,” I said. “It’s a wonder she hasn’t dropped out.”
James frowned thoughtfully as he wriggled out of his jeans. “Well, she’s a bit more resilient than the rest of us. Maybe that’s why Gwendolyn torments her.”
“Just because she can take it?” I said, discarding my own clothes in a pile on the floor. “That’s cruel.”
He shrugged. “That’s Gwendolyn.”
“If I had my way, I’d turn it all upside down,” I said. “Make Alexander Caesar and have Richard play Cassius instead.”
He folded his comforter back and asked, “Am I still Brutus?”
“No.” I tossed a sock at him. “You’re Antony. For once I get to be the lead.”
“Your time will come to be the tragic hero. Just wait for spring.”
I glanced up from the drawer I was pawing through. “Has Frederick been telling you secrets again?”
He lay down and folded his hands behind his head. “He may have mentioned Troilus and Cressida. He has this fantastic idea to do it as a battle of the sexes. All the Trojans men, all the Greeks women.”
“Why? That play is as much about sex as it is about war,” he said. “Gwendolyn will want Richard to be Hector, of course, but that makes you Troilus.”
“Why on earth wouldn’t you be Troilus?”
He shifted, arched his back. “I may have mentioned that I’d like to have a little more variety on my résumé.”
I stared at him, unsure if I should be insulted.
“Don’t look at me like that,” he said, a low note of reproach in his voice. “He agreed we all need to break out of our boxes. I’m tired of playing fools in love like Troilus, and I’m sure you’re tired of always playing the sidekick.”
I flopped on my bed on my back. “Yeah, you’re probably right.” For a moment I let my thoughts wander, and then I breathed out a laugh.
“Something funny?” James asked, as he reached over to turn out the light.
“You’ll have to be Cressida,” I told him. “You’re the only one of us pretty enough.”
We lay there laughing in the dark until we dropped off to sleep, and slept deeply, with no way of knowing that the curtain was about to rise on a drama of our own invention.
Dellecher Classical Conservatory occupied twenty or so acres of land on the eastern edge of Broadwater, and the borders of the two so often overlapped that it was difficult to tell where campus ended and town began. The first-years were housed in a cluster of brick buildings in town, while the second- and third-years were crowded together at the Hall, and the handful of fourth-years were tucked away in odd isolated corners of campus or left to fend for themselves. We, the fourth-year theatre students, lived on the far side of the lake in what was whimsically called the Castle (not really a castle, but a small stone building that happened to have one turret, originally the groundskeepers’ quarters).
Dellecher Hall, a sprawling red brick mansion, looked down a steep hill to the dark flat water of the lake. Dormitories and the ballroom were on the fourth and fifth floors, classrooms and offices on the second and third, while the ground floor was divided into refectory, music hall, library, and conservatory. A chapel jutted off the west end of the building, and sometime in the 1960s, the Archibald Dellecher Fine Arts Building (generally referred to as the FAB, for more than one reason) was erected on the east side of the Hall, a small courtyard and honeycomb of corbeled walkways wedged between them. The FAB was home to the Archibald Dellecher Theatre and the rehearsal hall and, ergo, was where we spent most of our time. At eight in the morning on the first day of classes, it was exceptionally quiet.
Richard and I walked from the Castle together, though I wasn’t due to audition for another half hour.
“How do you feel?” he asked, as we climbed the steep hill to the lawn.
“Nervous, like I always am.” The number of auditions under my belt didn’t matter; the anxiety never really left me.
“No need to be,” he said. “You’re never as dreadful as you think you are. Just don’t shift your weight too much. You’re most interesting when you stand still.”
I frowned at him. “How do you mean?”
“I mean when you forget you’re onstage and forget to be nervous. You really listen to other actors, really hear the words like it’s the first time you’ve heard them. It’s wonderful to work with and marvelous to watch.” He shook his head at the look of consternation on my face. “I shouldn’t have told you. Don’t get self-conscious.” He clapped one huge hand on my shoulder, and I was so distracted I pitched forward, my fingertips brushing the dewy grass. Richard’s booming laugh echoed in the morning air, and he grabbed my arm to help me find my balance. “See?” he said. “Keep your feet planted and you’ll be fine.”
“You suck,” I said, but with a grudging smirk. (Richard had that effect on people.)
As soon as we reached the FAB, he gave me another cheery smack on the back and disappeared into the rehearsal hall. I paced back and forth along the crossover, puzzling over what he had said and repeating Pericles to myself like I was saying a string of Hail Marys.
Our first semester auditions determined which parts we would play in our fall production. That year, Julius Caesar. Tragedies and histories were reserved for the fourth-years, while the third-years were relegated to romance and comedy and all the bit parts were played by the second-years. First-years were left to work backstage, slog through general education, and wonder what the hell they’d gotten themselves into. (Each year, students whose performance was deemed unsatisfactory were cut from the program—often as many as half. To survive until fourth year was proof of either talent or dumb luck. In my case, the latter.) Class photos from the past fifty years hung in two neat rows along the wall in the crossover. Ours was the last and certainly the sexiest, a publicity photo from the previous year’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. We looked younger.
It was Frederick’s idea to do Midsummer as a pajama party. James and I (Lysander and Demetrius, respectively) wore striped boxers and white undershirts and stood glaring at each other, with Wren (Hermia, in a short pink nightgown) trapped between us. Filippa stood on my left in Helena’s longer blue nightdress, clutching the pillow she and Wren had walloped each other with in Act III. In the middle of the photo, Alexander and Meredith were wrapped around each other like a pair of snakes—he a sinister and seductive Oberon in slinky silk bathrobe, she a voluptuous Titania in revealing black lace. But Richard was the most arresting, standing among the other rude mechanicals in clownish flannel pajamas, enormous donkey ears protruding from his thick black hair. His Nick Bottom was aggressive, unpredictable, and totally deranged. He terrorized the fairies, tormented the other players, scared the hell out of the audience, and—as always—stole the show.
The seven of us had survived three yearly “purges” because we were each somehow indispensable to the playing company. In the course of four years we were transformed from a rabble of bit players to a small, meticulously trained dramatic troupe. Some of our theatrical assets were obvious: Richard was pure power, six foot three and carved from concrete, with sharp black eyes and a thrilling bass voice that flattened every other sound in a room. He played warlords and despots and anyone else the audience needed to be impressed by or afraid of. Meredith was uniquely designed for seduction, a walking daydream of supple curves and skin like satin. But there was something merciless about her sex appeal—you watched her when she moved, whatever else was happening, and whether you wanted to or not. (She and Richard had been “together” in every typical sense of the word since the spring semester of our second year.) Wren—Richard’s cousin, though you never would have guessed it by looking at them—was the ingénue, the girl next door, a waifish thing with corn silk hair and round china doll eyes. Alexander was our resident villain, thin and wiry, with long dark curls and sharp canine teeth that made him look like a vampire when he smiled.
Filippa and I were more difficult to categorize. She was tall, olive-skinned, vaguely boyish. There was something cool and chameleonic about her that made her equally convincing as Horatio or Emilia. I, on the other hand, was average in every imaginable way: not especially handsome, not especially talented, not especially good at anything but just good enough at everything that I could pick up whatever slack the others left. I was convinced I had survived the third-year purge because James would have been moody and sullen without me.
Fate had dealt us a good hand in our first year, when he and I found ourselves squashed together in a tiny room on the top floor of the dormitories. When I’d first opened our door, he looked up from the bag he was unpacking, held out his hand, and said, “Here comes Sir Oliver! You are well met, I hope.” He was the sort of actor everyone fell in love with as soon as he stepped onstage, and I was no exception. Even in our early days at Dellecher, I was protective and even possessive of him when other friends came too close and threatened to usurp my place as “best”—an event as rare as a meteor shower. Some people saw me as Gwendolyn always cast me: simply the loyal sidekick. James was so quintessentially a hero that this didn’t bother me. He was the handsomest of us (Meredith once compared him to a Disney prince), but more charming than that was his childlike depth of feeling, onstage and off-. For three years I enjoyed the overflow of his popularity and admired him intensely, without jealousy, even though he was Frederick’s obvious favorite in much the same way that Richard was Gwendolyn’s. Of course, James did not have Richard’s ego or temper and was liked by everyone, while Richard was hated and loved with equal ferocity.
It was customary for us to watch whichever audition followed our own (performing unobserved was compensation for performing first), and I paced restlessly along the crossover, wishing that James could have been my audience. Even when he didn’t mean to be, Richard was an intimidating onlooker. I could hear his voice from the rehearsal hall, ringing off the walls.
Richard: “Therefore take heed how you impawn our person,
How you awake our sleeping sword of war:
We charge you, in the name of God, take heed.
For never two such kingdoms did contend
Without much fall of blood; whose guiltless drops
Are every one a woe, a sore complaint,
’Gainst him whose wrongs give edge unto the swords
That make such waste in brief mortality.”
I’d seen him do the same speech twice before, but that made it no less impressive.
At precisely half past eight, the door to the rehearsal hall creaked open. Frederick’s familiar face, wizened and droll, appeared in the gap. “Oliver? We’re ready for you now.”
“Great.” My pulse quickened—a flutter, like little bird wings trapped between my lungs.
I felt small walking into the rehearsal hall, as I always did. It was a cavernous room, with a high vaulted ceiling and long windows that gazed out on the grounds. Blue velvet curtains hung on either side of them, hems gathered in dusty piles on the hardwood floor. My voice echoed as I said, “Good morning, Gwendolyn.”
The redheaded, stick figure woman behind the casting table glanced up at me, her presence in the room disproportionately enormous. Bold pink lipstick and a paisley head scarf made her look like some sort of gypsy. She wiggled her fingers in greeting, and the bangles on her wrist rattled. Richard sat in the chair to the left of the table, arms folded, watching me with a comfortable smile. I was not Leading Man material and therefore didn’t qualify as competition. I flashed him a grin and then tried to ignore him.
“Oliver,” Gwendolyn said. “Lovely to see you. Have you lost weight?”
“Gained it, actually,” I said, my face going warm. When I left for summer break she had advised me to “bulk up.” I spent hours at the gym every day of June, July, and August, hoping to impress her.
“Hm,” she said, gaze descending slowly from the top of my head to my feet with the cold scrutiny of a slave trader at auction. “Well. Shall we get started?”
“Sure.” Remembering Richard’s advice, I straightened my feet on the floor and resolved not to move without reason.
Frederick eased back into his seat beside Gwendolyn, removed his glasses, and wiped the lenses on the hem of his shirt. “What do you have for us today?” he asked.
“Pericles,” I said. He had suggested it, the previous term.
He gave me a small, conspiratorial nod. “Perfect. Whenever you’re ready.”
Copyright © 2017 by M. L. Rio