“I once played Romeo and Juliet as a one-man show,” I said. “Doubling with Mercutio won’t be a problem.”
The curtain was already up, and Dahlia Smithson — our fair sun, the snowy dove trouping with crows, the rich jewel in the Ethiop’s’ ear of our production — had yet to appear backstage. This was not a surprise. The last two nights we’d had to winch her drunken loveliness into the balcony and tie her down with hidden cables to keep her from falling out.
“You’re out of your mind,” shouted Larry “The Leech” Crocker, our producer-director-stage manager: the wax in the Ethiop’s ear. He was bug-eyed with fury, trembling, drenched in sweat … and the picture of calm composure next to Dee, the assistant stage manager, who kept pushing Larry’s ragged script away from her as if it might bite.
There had been talk of bringing in an understudy in view of La Smithson’s recent behavior, but this was not the Schubert Traveling Shows, ladies and germs, this was The Crocker Players, and if you haven’t heard of them it’s probably because you live within a parsec of civilization. We were chronically under-capitalized (read “dirt poor”) and it fell to the ASM to understudy all the female parts. And while I’m sure Dee would have provided yeoman service as Ladies Montague or Capulet, and could probably have taken a creditable swing at the Nurse, the prospect of Juliet had turned her a pale green.
“I don’t know all the lines,” Dee wailed.
“See?” I said. “She doesn’t know the part.”
“You’re crazy,” Larry exploded. “Aren’t they on stage at the same time?”
“Mercutio and Juliet never meet,” I said. “I know you’ve put Mercutio at the Capulet’s party, but the Bard doesn’t demand it, and it can be solved by letting the Prince wear my costume in the scene. Mercutio is masked, and has no lines. However,” and I cupped my ear to the stage, “You’d better make up your mind. Scene two is about to begin, and Juliet is in three. I’ll need a little time.”
“You’re crazy,” Larry the Leech muttered again, then jerked his head toward the dressing rooms.
“You’ll never regret this,” I said.
“I regret it already.”
This being a Crocker show, it goes without saying that we were a lot more than forty-five minutes from Broadway. Hell, we were just about forty-five hours from Pluto. That’s how long it had taken my last message to my agent to reach The System, and an equal time for the news to reach me that he wasn’t answering his phone. No big surprise there; I’d been “on the road,” as it were, for almost ten years now, and my agent hadn’t been answering when I left. (The question I’d wanted him to answer? Simple, really: “Who booked me into this toilet?”)
The plumbing fixture in question was know as Brementon. Who knows why? Humans have this need to name everything, no matter how little that thing may deserve it. When I saw the name on the travel itinerary it brought to mind a peaceful little hamlet. German, perhaps. Happy burghers in lederhosen, smiling frauleins in dirndls and pigtails and wooden shoes, cottages draped in swastika bunting. In reality, if they’d added “Maximum Security Prison” to the place’s name they’d have been closer to the truth. About a quarter of it was a prison. We hadn’t seen that part as yet, but if it was worse than the rest of the place, the mind reeled. B-town, as the players came to call it, could have provided the very definition of the word “boondock,” except that the stop before B-town had actually been called Boondocks.
What it was, was a random collection of junk, natural and artificial, welded together in the cometary zone and pressed into service as a “City” by the escaped criminals, madmen, perverts, and other misfits who liked to call themselves Outlanders. Brementon, Boondocks, and about a hundred other similar wandering junkyards constituted the most far-flung “community” humanity had ever known.
As to where it was, that was something that could have mattered only to a celestial navigator. Upon arrival I’d looked for the Sun, and hadn’t found it. Somebody pointed it out to me. There were several other stars that seemed just as bright. That same somebody explained that we were due to pass within five billion miles of the sun in only four thousand years. To an Outlander, that qualified as a near miss. Of course (this too-helpful person had gone on), there was always the chance of a close encounter with a comet that would perturb us into a hyperbolic (Meaning? Your guess is as good as mine), hereupon we’d pass within spitting distance in only a century. Land sakes, Ma, toss them young ‘uns in the flivver! Time’s a’wastin’!
It was tough to say how big Brementon was. Much of it is tied together with cables and hoses and it tended to drift around. If you’d grabbed ahold of two ends and yanked hard you might have stretched it out twenty kay or more, but you’d never get it unsnarled again. When I first saw it from the ship it presented a rude circular form about five kay across, like some demented globular cluster, or a picture of a spaceship a few seconds after a disastrous explosion.
One small part of this orbiting traffic-accident-in-progress was a silvery sphere called The Brementon Playhouse. It was tied to a counter-balancing ball containing the municipal sewer words, which gives a fair idea of the high esteem Outlanders held for The Arts. The balls rotated around a common center of gravity. The result was that we didn’t have to play Shakespeare in free-fall, as we’d done at Boondocks and several previous engagements. Friends, Romans, countrymen, throw me a tie-down! Talk about your theater in the round.
But enough about Brementon. Let’s talk about me.
I raced up the spiral stairs in the wings, not pausing to appreciate having an “up” to race to, and slammed into Dahlia’s dressing room. I did pause for just a second there, breathing the intoxicating air of the headliner. I’d hate to say how long it had been since I’d rated a private dressing room. I caressed the back of Juliet’s chair, then pulled it back and sat in front of the light-girdled mirror and gazed into my face and centered myself.
I’d never actually done Juliet before. No point in telling Larry that. (The one-man show? A comic skit, really, with quick changes, slapstick, clown faces and japery, lasting twenty minutes when I was really rolling.) No point in worrying him; I knew the part. I knew all the parts in Shakespeare. But line reading is just the starting point, of course. You must get inside the character. All good acting is played from within. I had about five minutes.
It’s now enough time, of course. It wouldn’t have been enough even if I’d been able to use it to do nothing but think about the part. As it was, I’d need every minute to accomplish the physical transformation. But I did use the mental time to go back over the many, many performances of Juliet I had seen in my lifetime, going right back to Norma Shearer in 1936 — a good example, by the way, as Ms. Shearer was no closer to thirteen years of age than our good Lady Smithson. And with five minutes to work, I figured the best I could hope for was mid-twenties.
So as my mind ranged back over Juliets of the past, taking a bit of business here, a word emphasis there — not forgetting to keep it all within the bounds of things Dahlia had done so as not to throw the other actors off their stride — my hands were busy changing hatchet-faced Mercutio into a visage with cheek to shame the fairest stars in all the heavens.
Once I had my own face. Well, I still have it, of course, the specs are somewhere in my trunk, the copyright number SSCO-5-441-j54902. It’s a good face, and served me well in the trade for almost thirty years. But the public got tired of it and if you wish to keep working in this business you turn to character roles, and that means adaptability. I am more adaptable than most. Ten years ago, following a long and successful run, with unaccustomed money in my pocket yearning to be blown, I invested in every make-up gadget then known to mankind. This required, among other things, that my entire head be taken apart and re-built. My body harbors enough tech wizardry to qualify as a public nuisance. Radios often spit static when I walk by. Compasses are thrown off true. Cats screech and race to the tops of trees. But when the part calls for a full-body alternation in a hurry, I’m your guy. Or gal, as the case may be.
My first appearance was a logistical nuisance, really. It would be played by me, Lady Capulet, and the Nurse, and Juliet had little to do. Her contribution is to answer “It is an honor that I dream not of” when asked if she wants to be married. To which the nurse hoots “An honour! Were not I thine only nurse, I would say thou hadst suck’d wisdom from thy teat.” A guaranteed laugh line, which dear sweet Angeline Atkins vamped outrageously, as she did the entire role. It was the Nurse’s scene, no question. I could have phoned in my lines.
The problem was that the next scene, Act I, scene four, was Mercutio’s chance to shine. What to do, what to do?
First things first. I struggled into the costume, stuffing padding in the appropriate places. Luckily, the skirt reached all the way to the floor. We were using costumes which Larry had been assured were authentic sixteenth century Veronese. Outlandish stuff! Very colorful.
I pulled on a black wig, quickly combed it out, and then picked up the Masque-Aid. It’s a nice little gadget consisting of two parts. The first is a thin plastic tube with a snap connector on the end. I fastened this to a matching connector hidden behind my left ear, turned it on, and heard the high hiss as air began to flow through it. The second part is a styling wand, which looks like a pencil with a broad, flat head. Both units are connected to a control console and a switching system buried in my cheekbone. I pressed the flat end of the wand to my face and got to work.
There’s nothing real fancy about the wand itself. It contains a powerful magnet that rotates when I press a button with my thumb. When I put it is the right position on my face it causes surgically implanted magnets to turn, which then turn screws … which slowly cause various bones or groups of bones to move apart or closer together.
I can vary the distance between my eyes by three centimeters. I can lengthen my jawbone, raise and lower my cheekbones, cause them to jut or recede. I can create a prominent brow ridge. Hell, in five minutes I can look like almost any human who ever lived.
That’s the underpinnings of the transformation. The air hose was taking care of the rest.
There are twenty little air bags embedded in my facial skin. Suck them all dry and I look like Death. Fill them up: Fatty Arbuckle. Manipulate them more subtly and I could change from hawk-faced Mercutio to baby-fat thirteen-year-old Juliet in a twinkling.
There are only two problems with all this stage magic. One, it takes time to learn how to use it. In the hands of a novice the result can be more like a cartoon than a human being. And two, it hurts some. Depending on how much I had to do, the pain could be like a mild toothache or a severe beating.
Oh, well. No one ever told me art would be painless.