Friday, October 19, 2012

She, the star

“I wrote this yesterday,” she was confused.

She had a vague understanding that the words on the page were her own, only they didn’t, in truth, resonate. She was late, but in no way hurried. “Let them wait,” she shrugged, hinting at malice as sunlight streamed in from the balcony windows. Athens was definitely beautiful, as was she, disappearing into the elevator all marble skin and endless limbs, a revered exile.

When the doors opened and she found her way onto the street it was noon, the traffic was ceaseless, the heat relentless, the journey, hopeless. She could have taken a taxi, but she didn’t believe in cars, too stuffy, too sinister in such sunlight, they made her feel claustrophobic and awash with an LA smog panic. The Mediterranean and California are so much closer than she had ever thought, their pollutions and vegetations made it easy for her to forget where was sometimes. So no, no taxi, and no train either, the simplest journey in this city required multiple changes, and patience is not her virtue, plus all of that transferring would save her no time. Not that she cares to save time, not that she is in a rush.

So, she walks, through the plaka, skimming the foot of the Acropolis, strolling deliberately through history’s great shadow, admiring without irony the great glut of souvenir t-shirts, travel ready food stuffs and factory glazed ceramics; culture, antiquity, adventure, so glibly compacted, self-replicating without guilt. Then come the museums and the packs of stray dogs, very civilized, waiting for the traffic lights to change before crossing the street, the ubiquitous semi-automatic police, the graffiti, McDonalds and overgrown town houses, the riot of time that leads her around the base of the Parthenon’s rocky foothold.

Though it seems a little early in the day, she stops for blue ice cream, and it is chewy with mastic gum, a texture she has come to find comforting in the last few months. From somewhere, any one of these ice cream stands, any number of parked cabs, comes Cher’s Walking in Memphis, it makes her smirk, she lingers longer with the ice cream, thoroughly invested in it.

Coming up to the Piraeus Road, weaving between the empty cafes and restaurants that represent her last few moments of freedom, she notices herself, or rather the absence of herself. Posters are up around the city, advertising the play she has the lead in, only the imagery has proved perhaps too illustrative of the show’s polymorphous themes, and posters are often defaced. Frequently she sees but half of a poster, remaining tacked to a wall, she has been torn out and discarded, an affront aborted. The letters above the head of her surviving co-star read, “An Ill…(second line) His…. (third line) Lon”, like the prayers applied above the heads of Byzantine saints in ancient mosaics, deconstructed by time and her invasions. The destruction doesn’t make her shudder anymore, she knew what she was getting into, “This is a very conservative country,” they had told her. “So am I,” she replied, with a dreamy, divisive opacity.

She was hungover, she could admit that now, in truth she was forced to admit it most mornings, for most evenings she devoured a full liter of anonymous white wine, not that she had ever enjoyed drinking, not that she could remember ever enjoying anything anymore. Taking one last gasp of air she broke the surface of the theatre, strode into the foyer, making no eye contact, and descended down into the auditorium. The place was still, full of frantic energies with no outlet, the cast, the crew shuffled about, looking bored and tense, staring into space, smoking illicitly.

You,” began the director, “Are two hours late! We have been waiting for you, for two hours!”

“Well, I’m here now,” she replied without any attempt to feign a fake apologetic tone, and disappeared into the dressing room.

Commands were issued, lights came up, positions were taken, the place came to life, obligingly in time for another rehearsal, the previous evening had been a disaster, technically that is. The sound cues had been unfailingly hashed and the lighting desk had seemingly adopted her hopeless mood, and simply expired. In the erratic darkness, afloat in muddled sound, the actors had barely made it through the performance, not that the audience seemed to care, so baffled were they by the entire nature of the work. Even she, she who had apparently co-authored the script, and sat in on every dance rehearsal, signed off the costume sketches, could not give a proper account of what it was they were all supposed to be doing down there – besides wasting money and embarrassing themselves.

Some clueless Genet, Homer, Fosse mélange, immersive and experimental (by which she understood rambling and full of wholes) and at the center of it, she the star, was supposed to sit like a jewel and confer comprehensibility. At best it was a show within a show, at worst a garbled tangle of clichés and bad scholarship, underscored with a profuse and supercilious lack of humor regarding itself. One night a dog walked onstage, inexplicably, and nobody cracked a smile, neither in the audience or onstage. That was the death knell for her.

In between her scenes, she would stand just off-stage, forever unable to remember what would come next. It was like bobbing in a recurring nightmare, never quite able to wake up. The stage manager, standing by, would gently respond to her obvious panic, saying softly, “You’re going onto sing ‘Tell All Your Troubles To Me’”, which she would do, onstage confidence betraying none of the confusion which flickered just off in the shadows. The scenes would roll smoothly, smoother than reality, indeed their rhythm down there in the darkness, illuminated by those artificial spotlights, had become more real than real life. Onstage the relationships were defined, the conversations well mapped, the interactions accountable, reliable, known. Offstage it was not so, and as much as she hated to step out onto the boards each night, she hated more for the final curtain to fall, to be hurled back out into the disinterested night.

She would scramble backstage between costumes, dancing a silent, comic, precarious ballet with her co-stars who undressed and redressed around her within a minute or so. It was hard not to trip, difficult not to collide, almost impossible in that cramped space to assemble the next ensemble without disaster. If ever the actors onstage rushed their scene she would curse them, saboteurs that they were! If they took their time, langoured with their lines, an impatient mania would seize her, expanding her desire to be back in the spotlight.

In one scene she appeared onstage, seducing her desirable leading man and smoking a cigarette. She did not, however, at that time in her life, smoke, and so dutifully each evening the stage manager would smoke for her. Overseeing the smooth rising and fallings of the stage curtain, the stage manager with a menthol (as per request) hanging from his lip attended to a hundred different things. Dragging deep on the cigarette, observing flashes of naked skin between costume changes, exhaling blue curls of fog when he had time, and expelling puffs of white mist from his nose when he did not, the stage manager waved her over with his free left hand.

“Here’s your smoke,” he whispered, “The next number is ‘Time To Go Home’, break a leg.”

So she strides on once again, indiscriminate self-inflicted glory, the lit hits her and the dancers break into movement. The band strikes up, she sings efficiently if not effortlessly, but soon loses herself into the moment, which is really all we ever have, the terror and thrill of knowing that. The seconds count onstage, words have meaning and gestures are measured, there is no, “Excuse me, what I meant to say was,” only the inescapable rolling forwards towards the finish line. If you drop the ball, it will be noted, the net cast around it all is taut and if it breaks the beads will spring forth and spill across the floor.

From a fragmented, unbearable existence is formed, on paper, a fictitious platform of being, in which she must believe or be lost. As the scene unfolds, she finds herself ghostwalking stage right, mimicking herself, becoming each evening a greater exaggeration of herself, following in her own dance steps. Like clockwork she cries, “Je voudrais une boir!” and automatically, he turns on his heel from the bar, in her direction, whiskey glass in hand (ill suited to the role she always thinks). He brings it to her, the look on his face like a mock tudor mansion, spelling out “lust” in revivalist lettering, hands it to her. She sips, she swigs, knocks it back, and acknowledges that it is real whisky tonight, poured perhaps to placate her.

Then he kisses her, hard like he means it, and she returns the passion allowing her hands to slide down his body as their tongues clash and their sticky brows bump each other. Her lipstick is smeared around his mouth, his eyes are radiant, he looks deranged, but yes, very handsome, and as he pulls her back towards him, whispers in his offstage voice, with a snigger, “Wow, that was hot!” Embracing him, theatrically, with her face buried in the sweat of his shoulder, in a low voice she replies, “Calm down, it’s only a play.”

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