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THE PLAY’S THE THING
Desmond was a soldier until a piece of shrapnel took away his life’s work. Now he only feels alive when he’s being someone else, so he’s majoring in theater while dreaming about losing himself forever. He’s about to discover the cost of dreams.
William Shakespeare is the greatest sorcerer who ever lived. People still believe in the characters he created 400 years ago. He has made them immortal. Literally. In Winter of Discontent, Shakespeare’s immortals live on in an eternal half life. Half themselves, half the creatures Shakespeare made of them. When the magic of theater meets the Magic of Theater in a production of Richard III a deadly chess game between the damned is the result.
Where there are players, there are also pawns. Matt and Riana are actors and friends of Desmond. They are also novices in the theatrical magic tradition that created Shakespeare where Desmond is not. Sworn to a secrecy that seals their lips, can they help Desmond stay alive and stay true to their oaths at the same time?
Act one. Scene one.
A theater. Red light from the exit signs provides the only illumination. A lone man, barely visible in the darkness, paces haltingly back and forth across the stage. He begins to recite, hitting some of the lines with special emphasis:
“‘Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
…Grim-visaged war hath smoothed his wrinkled front;
And now instead of mounting barbed steeds
To fright the souls of fearful adversaries,
He capers nimbly in a lady’s chamber
…Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant upon my own deformity;
…Dive thoughts, down to my soul;
Here Clarence comes.'”
The figure finishes and stops his pacing.
“And thus, no escaping, are the terms laid out. I must embrace them if I would win my freedom.” He raises a fist. “Damn you, Will Shakespeare. Damn you to hell.”
Exit stage right, limping.
The theater stands empty save for the darkness, a darkness that has become somehow a character unto itself. No longer is it a thing of absence, readily banished by the flicking of a light switch. Rather, it is a presence hovering in the wings, waiting only for its proper entrance cue.
A sweeter and lovelier gentleman—
Framed in the prodigality of nature,
Young, valiant, wise, and, no doubt, right royal—
The spacious world cannot again afford.
Richard III Act 1 Scene 2
Act 1 Scene 1: Desmond
Desmond fisted his hand in his pocket, closing his fingers around his old dog tags and squeezing until the edges dug deep into his palm. They provided a reminder of a time when he’d believed in himself. They also helped him fight the urge to scratch. Stage fright made his scalp itch—especially auditions. Every actor he’d ever met hated try-outs. Even the cold, cloying fear that preceded opening-night curtain couldn’t touch audition anxiety.
In a performance you had some emotional insulation. The shell personality of your character acted like a knight’s armor. The physical mask of the play—the sets and props, lights and makeup, all the other little artifices—they allowed you to hide your face from your fears. Perhaps most importantly, the rest of the cast and the crew formed a larger self that provided a shelter from the other of the audience.
In an audition, there was nothing between you and the director. No shield. No excuses. No appeals. You walked into the middle of a bare stage, spoke your piece, and faced judgment. Most of the time you failed for lack of some vital quality the director wanted. It was an utterly personal rejection. If you didn’t get the part, you couldn’t blame bad direction or lousy sets or an off night. You simply weren’t good enough. It was almost medievally brutal.
But somehow the payoff made the whole agonizing process worthwhile. For Desmond it started the moment a director picked him for a part. It continued with the joy of mastering the role, of bonding with the self of the play and sharing the camaraderie of the company.
Finally, on those perfect nights when everything went just right and the audience truly believed in the play…. Well, that was what Desmond lived for now, that belief and devotion filling up the void in his soul. For a short time it raised him above the experience of being human, remade him into something transcendent—true in a way that life outside the circle of the spotlight never quite managed.
In that brief shining window Desmond was reality. Nothing else in the world could touch the way it felt. Not drugs. Not sex. Not love. Nothing. A soul-consuming need for that apotheosis drove him back to auditions again and again. It didn’t matter how many times directors rejected him or how often he had to pick himself up and nurse a bruised ego. He could no more have stopped trying than he could have stopped breathing. He was addicted and he knew it. Desmond needed theater to make him real.
The line of auditioning actors lurched forward and Desmond’s stomach lurched with it—dragging him back to the darkened theater. He closed his eyes and tried to relax. He had to stay focused if he wanted to catch and hold Robert Bristol’s attention, fight the burning desire to scratch, put aside the cold fact of his fear, and own the moment. As he neared the stage, Desmond turned his attention to the actors preceding him, hoping to learn from their mistakes.
The auditions took place on the main stage of Rarig Center. Five hundred vacant seats focused the ghostly attention of audiences past and future on anyone who stepped in front of the lights. There was no show currently in production, and the huge cavern of the theater stood completely empty. No sets or props reduced the airplane hangar immensity of the space. It lacked even the softening presence of a rear curtain. There was only a giant black slab of open floor daring the actor to try to command it, while the huge empty window of the proscenium arch hovered above like the mouth of some forgotten beast of myth.
In single file, actors challenged the void and were devoured, shrunken into insignificance by the stark grandeur of the setting, examined and discarded by the director like so many crumpled pieces of paper. The kid in front of Desmond went up. Barely twenty, and still unsure of himself, he shuffled onto the stage.
“Now is the winter of our discontent,” his voice came to a full stop as he drew breath to continue. He didn’t get the chance.
“It’s not a break. There is no pause on that line. Try again when you’ve thought about the speech instead of merely memorizing it. Next!” Visibly crushed, the actor left.
Robert Bristol was a famous director known for his impatience, and today he was definitely living up to the reputation. Desmond gave his dog tags one last squeeze, then walked briskly onto the stage. The footlights blinded him, but he knew Bristol was in the balcony on stage right. As soon as he hit the centerline Desmond turned to face the director and began.
“Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious spring by this sun of York; and all the clouds that lour’d upon our house in the deep bosom of the ocean buried.” He tried to inhabit the black despair Shakespeare’s Richard felt at the end of the wars in which he’d been his brother’s best general.
With the coming of peace, Richard’s most valuable skills were worthless, and he was no courtier, no pretty popinjay ready to thrive in a royal court preoccupied with pleasure seeking and petty politicking. Desmond could understand that. He’d been a soldier once too, an Airborne Ranger, one of the elite.
For seven years Desmond had served his country. He’d jumped out of an airplane into the absolute blackness of a desert night, seen the Humvee in front of his disintegrate when it got hit by an IED, driven through crowded streets where anyone could turn out to be an enemy. It was terrifying. It was dangerous. It was his whole life. Then a tripwire and a piece of razor-edged metal ended it all. But he couldn’t afford to lose himself in those memories now. He had to make them work for him.
Desmond put his own past pain into Shakespeare’s words—the realization and revelation that the only challenge worthy of Richard’s martial and mental gifts was to seize the throne. Spitting each word like a bitter seed, Desmond rolled through the entire speech uninterrupted.
“Not entirely bad,” said the voice from the balcony. “Callbacks are Thursday. Be here at two. Next!”
As soon as he got out of the theater, Desmond dug his fingers deep into his hair and scratched and scratched and scratched.
More direful hap betide that hated wretch
That makes us wretched by the death of thee
Than I can wish to wolves—to spiders, toads,
Or any creeping venomed thing that lives!
Richard III Act 1 Scene 2
Act 1 Scene 2: Bristol
“That’s today’s lot done.” Lisa Calera sighed. The graduate student was Robert Bristol’s assistant director—responsible for moving the students through the audition as quickly as possible.
“Good.” Bristol walked down the center aisle from the back and climbed onto the stage without even looking at Lisa. “Now, I need to think.” He waved her toward the door. “See that I’m not disturbed for at least an hour.”
Lisa left without another word, demonstrating an ability to follow orders that might have pleased Bristol if he’d really noticed it. But instant and unthinking obedience to the director was expected in theater, and Bristol had other things on his mind. It took him enormous effort, but he held perfectly still while Lisa collected the techs from the booth and left, locking up behind her.
Then he began to pace and speak aloud. It was a habit that bordered on compulsion and he detested it. But, like so many of the conditions of his existence, he had no power to alter it. At least, not yet.
“But that will change,” he snarled through clenched teeth, as he stumped across the stage from left to right and back again. “That will change. And soon, for I have finally found him.” He stopped and stared out over the empty seats. “Did you hear that, Will?” His tone walked the borderland between fear and triumph. “I hope you did, wherever you are. I. Found. Him.”
He turned away from the seats to pace anew, and now a slight limp became evident in his movements. “Who could have thought it would be here?” His arms opened in a subtly lopsided half-circle, encompassing his immediate surroundings and, by implication, the city beyond. “Here, in a frozen wasteland four thousand miles from London. Over twenty years of searching the best theaters in the world. Eighteen months of cattle calls in Hollywood. Thirty productions in twenty different venues—including a successful film—and I finally find my perfect Richard III buried on a college campus in Minneapolis, Minnesota in the bloody U. S. of A.” He paused and cocked his head, listening.
“Are you laughing at me, Will?” he hissed. “Somewhere out there in the darkness? You shouldn’t be, you know. Because I’ll be loose soon, and then maybe I’ll find a poison-penned assassin of my own. Together we’ll repay you. Or, what’s left of you, at least; repay the favor you’ve done me. You won’t find that funny at all. No, not at all.
“I owe you. Now more than ever. Arranging a believable excuse for the persona I’ve created to come here and direct a bunch of snot-nosed brats took resources that could have been better spent elsewhere. But this is where my Richard is and so I must needs come to him.”
Abruptly, Bristol stopped pacing. The atmosphere of the theater seemed to have thinned around him, and he found himself breathing heavily as though from hard work or vigorous exercise. He knew then that he had been sucked in again, drawn by the pregnant potentiality of a vacant theater to try to fill the void with the very fabric of his being. Because of who and what he was, it was a constant temptation—one he had to resist fiercely if he hoped to fulfill his plans. Fighting the pull, he headed for the stage door with dragging and uneven steps. He needed to get out under the honest emptiness of the sky and away from the greasepaint Faerie of the stage.
Look how I am bewitched: behold, mine arm,
Is like a blasted sapling withered up…
That by their witchcraft thus have marked me.
Richard III Act 3 Scene 4
A1 S3 Desmond
The University of Minnesota’s Rarig Center housed four theaters and several studios and classrooms. Unfortunately, all of the creative powers of the designer had been used up on the stage areas, leaving nothing for the building’s exterior and lobby. From the outside, it looked like a bunch of enormous cinderblocks stacked in a heap with some pillars thrown in here and there for show. The profile was essentially an eight-story brick.
Inside, the central public space was an open cube three stories tall, mirroring the block motif of the exterior. This starkness was reinforced by the fact that absolutely every fixed feature of the building was rendered in rough-finished, gray-brown concrete, without so much as a carpet for contrast. At the first and second floors, balconies ringed the central box. A series of suspended staircases on the north side connected the two upper floors to the large basement lounge, or the Pit.
Matt Olmstead, the grad student teaching Desmond’s stage combat course, waved at him when he hit the bottom step.
Desmond started to wave back, but stopped when he felt a sudden disorientation. The room seemed to wobble and his balance faltered.
“I heard you made callbacks.” Matt talked over Desmond’s hesitation. “Bravo. That’s not—Dive!” A sharp crack punctuated his shouted command.
The army had trained Desmond to obey orders and warnings instantly. He responded to the authority in Matt’s voice by throwing himself into a shallow roll. His forearm skidded painfully on the rough concrete floor, but he kept going, coming to his feet a few yards from where he’d begun.
Desmond rubbed at his scraped flesh. “What the hell—” A horrible metallic crash cut him off.
A sudden rush of displaced air and the smell of broken concrete came on the heels of the noise. Desmond whirled to find the twisted remnants of a gigantic iron rose crashed to ruin where he’d been standing only seconds earlier. The impact had cracked the floor in several places, sending up a cloud of thick dust.
The rose was an open-form rebar sculpture that started life as a prop. But the department chair liked it so much he’d had it hung from the ceiling fifty feet above the Pit after the show was over. Now its run in the theater had ended forever and Matt’s timely yell was the only thing that had kept Desmond’s from ending with it.
It wasn’t the first time Desmond had come close to death, but this time was different. This time it was an accident. Combat reflexes whirred aimlessly, searching for an enemy that didn’t exist. Desmond didn’t know how to react to chance trying to kill him. He felt empty and alone—a character who’d lost his lines. Then his legs folded like a piece of canvas scenery.
A hand the size of a ham caught the back of his fleece vest before he hit the floor. “Easy there.” Matt stood well over six feet tall, with shoulders twice the width of Desmond’s, and he had no trouble supporting the smaller actor. “It missed you. Come sit down.”
The only color in the Pit came from eight or nine large, blocky conversation sets in mixed orange, yellow, and red vinyl. Matt half dragged, half carried Desmond to the closest.
Adrenaline slid through Desmond’s veins like icy snakes, giving him energy he didn’t know how to direct while the air around him danced with purple sparks and a surf-like roaring tried to drag him under. Matt leaned him roughly forward.
“Everything’ll be all right. Put your head between your knees and just breathe.”
Desmond bent and stared at the bright red vinyl of the large square seat. Starbursts, his mind informed him irrelevantly, everyone calls them Starbursts. They did look like giant fruit candies, though they smelled of old dust and plastic.
What should he be doing? Feeling? He didn’t know any more, didn’t know how to fit into the world as a civilian version of himself. He’d lost that part of his soul somewhere along the way. That was part of why he ended up in theater. When he was playing a character he always knew who to be. The play itself told him. Now? He just didn’t know. That frightened him far more than a brush with death ever could.
Once the sparkles faded away Desmond sat up and looked back at the sculpture. A rapidly growing crowd surrounded the twisted mass of rusty iron. The horrendous crash had emptied every classroom in the building. Mostly the students and professors stood around the wreck gawking, but a few hovered closer to Desmond.
“Riana, could you keep an eye on Desmond?” Matt asked. “I want to get the first aid kit. He scraped his arm pretty good, and this floor is filthy.”
Riana was taller than Desmond, five-nine or so to his meager five-six. She was another MFA, or Master of Fine Arts, candidate like Matt—not to mention triple-take gorgeous. Full hips and fuller breasts were separated by a narrow muscular waist and she moved with the lithe ease of a dancer. She had long, silky blonde hair and jewel-green eyes.
Desmond figured the color of the former owed a lot to bleach and the latter came out of a contact case, but that was fine. Faking what you hadn’t been given was just part of the business of acting. At least, it was if you wanted to make it anywhere. She was wearing loose, tattered black jeans, a forest green leotard, and scuffed black ballet slippers. She’d pulled her hair back in a tight bun, but a few fetching wisps escaped to float around her face like a halo.
Riana slid into the seat beside Desmond and put an arm around his shoulders. Desmond shivered. He was attracted to her—had been since the first time they’d met—but he hadn’t done anything about it. Not because he didn’t want to, but because he didn’t know what to do or say, how to act with…well, people. He didn’t want to expose his uncertainty to anyone, his hollowness. None of that mattered at the moment. Riana was warm and human and holding him. Somehow that bridged the emptiness that had grown up both inside and around him after the army invalided him out.
“You’re shaking,” she said. “Are you cold?”
He thought about it and realized he was. “Afraid so.”
She pulled him in tight.
The natural thing to do was to put his arms around her waist, which he did. This placed his head firmly against her breasts. She smelled of apple blossoms and good clean sweat, and the beating of her heart thundered in his ear. Desmond trembled even more.
Matt had told him that Riana started in ballet, but moved to theater after “the puberty faerie gave me double portions.” Riana’s clear high tones had sounded bizarre coming out of a giant like Matt, but he was one of the best actors Desmond had ever met, and his imitation was stone perfect.
Matt returned now. Pulling Desmond gently away from Riana, he started cleaning out the scrapes with a swab dipped in hydrogen peroxide. It didn’t hurt that much, but Desmond still felt as though he’d been slapped.
“Hey!” he said. “That stings! Ease up.”
“This need attention,” replied Matt. “You can either be quiet and cooperate or you can bitch and moan and I’ll sit on you and do it anyway.”
Desmond sized up his huge nursemaid, then reached out his good hand and squeezed Matt’s shoulder. “Thanks.” He ventured a smile. “If it’s all the same, I think I’ll cooperate.”
“Sensible.” Riana nodded. “Jason was being an ass in advanced movement last week and Matt offered him the same kind of choice. Then Jason got all manly about it. You know how he is.”
Desmond suppressed a bitter retort. Jason was an MFA in the same year as Riana and Matt. He matched Matt’s six-six with a recruiting-poster-perfect body that contrasted sharply with the latter’s gentle oval. He was also dreadfully handsome in a macho, action hero sort of way, with straight black hair, a square jaw, broad white teeth, and bright blue eyes. But the thing that actually managed to get under Desmond’s skin was that he was a damn fine actor as well. In the two years he and Desmond had overlapped at the U, Jason had landed every single role they’d both auditioned for.
“What happened next?” Desmond wanted to keep the conversation flowing in its present safe channels and away from topics like how he felt about nearly being crushed. He kept expecting Matt or Riana to ask about that, and knew he didn’t have an acceptable answer.
Riana smiled and stood up, aping Jason’s manner. “He made some remark like, ‘you and what army?’ And Matt said, ‘Just me,’ with this evil grin. By that time, we were all watching and Jason couldn’t back down. So he started snorting and flexing and struck a boxing pose. Like that was gonna help.” She rolled her eyes. “Though I do have to admit he’s a very pretty boy.”
“Doesn’t he just know it?” grumbled Matt.
“Sure.” Riana snorted. “But it’s hard to hold against him. He can act and he’s gorgeous enough, but his wardrobe could outsmart him. It’s kind of sad. He can be such a sweetie when he exerts himself.”
“Did Matt flatten him?” Desmond asked.
“No.” She shook her head. “That would’ve given Jason a chance to play martyr.” Riana winked at Matt. “He just slid around Jason like he was standing still, grabbed him by the collar and waistband, and lifted him into the air like a puppy. Then he dropped him onto the pads and sat on him like he’d promised. It was a fine performance.”
“Thank you.” Matt rose and bowed. “I wanted to wipe the floor with him, but that would have been crude.” He turned to Desmond. “And you, my friend, are done and free to go.”
“Huh? But…” Desmond looked down to find a neat gauze pad covering his injury. “I didn’t notice you finishing up.”
“A bit distracted?” Matt darted his eyes in Riana’s direction and waggled his bushy eyebrows suggestively.
Even knowing Matt’s interest in women was purely academic and that the angle would prevent Riana from seeing the facial hijinks, Desmond found himself blushing. A shout from over by the fallen sculpture saved him the chore of answering.
“Riana!” It was Jason.
“They’re starting classes again and we’ve got a scene to rehearse.”
“I’ll be right there.” She turned back to Desmond and Matt. “See you later, Matt. Take it easy, Desmond. You’ve had a nasty shock; it may hit you worse later. If you need to talk, give me a call.”
But I don’t have your number! thought Desmond as she walked away. Maybe he could get it from Matt.
They’d only recently gotten to know each other, but Desmond found Matt a soothing presence. His calm competence reminded Desmond of his army buddies. It was a welcome change from Desmond’s fellow undergrads. The barely post-adolescent antics made him all too aware of the ten or more years he had on most of them. That distance gave him lots of time to work on his craft, but his isolation drew attention he didn’t want. It came as something of a pleasant surprise when Matt started introducing him to the other grad students. They were closer to Desmond’s age and he didn’t feel so much like a baby-sitter in their company.
“Hey, Desmond.” Matt tapped his wrist. “If you’re feeling better, I’ve gotta run. I’m teaching in fifteen.”
“Go!” Desmond was actually relieved. University officialdom hadn’t yet arrived, and if he got away now, he might avoid filling out a million accident report forms. He’d learned to hate paperwork in the army. “I’ll be fine, though I do think I’ll take the rest of the day off.” He bounced to his feet, then abruptly lurched as his right ankle twinged sharply.
Matt paused. “You are feeling better, aren’t you? I could find someone to walk you to your car.”
“It’s okay.” Desmond slowly put his weight back on the ankle. It still ached, but the initial sharp pain had faded. “I just twisted something.”
“If you’re sure,” Matt was clearly concerned, but it was also plain he needed to be elsewhere. “Why don’t you stop by props and borrow a cane? They must have a couple dozen.”
“Thanks. Maybe I will.” He made a shooing motion. “Now, get before you’re late.”
“All right. See you in class tomorrow.”
Desmond bent and quickly relaced his boot for extra ankle support. Special forces issue—the boots were hybrid combat/hikers designed for just such occasions. Then, despite the urge to avoid official notice, he limped over to the fallen sculpture. One of the guys from Desmond’s set design class stood there. Karl something. Enormously tall and slender with huge feet, he looked a bit like an elongated L.
“Has anybody figured out what happened?” Desmond asked.
“Not exactly,” said the tech major. “All five cables seem to have gone at once. It looks like the steel rusted away completely about a foot down from the mounts. Here.” He showed the end of one to Desmond.
“Weird.” Desmond blinked at the break.
It was as smooth as if it had been snipped but dark with rust instead of shiny the way a true cut would have left it. On impulse Desmond sniffed the metal end. The sharp wet scent of rusted steel dominated, of course, but he smelled a strong sort of bright floral undertone as well. It reminded him of fresh roses, but he chalked that up to simple association.
“It’s more than weird.” Karl shook his head. “It’s downright bizarre. These cables aren’t that old and it’s just the single spot on each of them. The rest of the line is clean. If someone poured acid on them, it might have this kind of effect, but the breaks aren’t irregular enough for that. It’s more like they got very old, very fast in that one place.” He poked at the end with a thumbnail. “I’ll be interested to find out what caused it.”
“Me too,” said Desmond. Or who, he added mentally. Then he dismissed the thought as paranoia. He was home now. No one was going to be gunning for him here.
“Right. You were almost under that thing, weren’t you?”
“Yes, I was.” He bent and touched the twisted mass of metal. “Yes, I was.”