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Scenes from a Cultural Exchange, or The Muppets Take New Burbage

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1.

Geoffrey’s not entirely sure how the American neo-vaudeville variety troupe got added to the season. (A lie. It was a stipulation in Darren's contract, added after he saw them perform what he called a "revelatory and subversive deconstruction of the American hegemony of comedy," which doesn't explain anything since Geoffrey didn't actually want to bring Darren back either). Whatever the cause of their inclusion, they haven't even arrived, and yet they're already giving him a headache.

“Anna, could you please explain to me, again, exactly why the Americans aren’t here yet?” Geoffrey says rubbing at his temples.

“I just got off the phone with their stage manager, who just got promoted and seems very nervous about it all, so please go easy on him if you have to talk to him for any reason."

"Anna. The point?"

"It appears they’ve run into some trouble at the border."

"Work permits?" Geoffrey sighs.

"Contraband," Anna says, and when Geoffrey looks up at her she dodges his eye.

"Anna, I know that we theatre types aren't particularly known for cultural conformity or even intelligence, but please tell me we haven't hired on a troupe so stupid as to try and cross the border with drugs."

"No, not drugs." Anna says, still studiously avoiding eye contact.

"Well then?" Geoffrey prompts, waving for her to continue.

Anna looks down at her notepad. "Six chickens, four rats, a dog, an eagle, a number of penguins, a few bears, a pig, and a frog... and something that might be an endangered species."

"It's an acting troupe, Anna, not a zoo. Why do they need so many goddamn animals."

"Um." Anna says and bolts without further answer.

"I want to see whoever is in charge of their disaster as soon as they get here!" Geoffrey shouts in her wake. There's no answer but he knows she heard. She always hears. He tips his head against the back of his chair and stares up at the ceiling and beyond. "Oliver, I don't know where you are or what--or who--you're doing, but don't think I don't recognize that this is somehow all your fault."

Four hours later, Geoffrey's attacking a script with a pen and just starting to think about switching over to a knife when his door opens. ,He doesn't bother to look up. Just says, "Yes, Anna?"

"Heigh ho." Says a voice that is most definitely not Anna. "I was told you wanted to see me as soon as I got here."

"Ah yes, the tardy Americans. Do take a seat," Geoffrey says, looks up, blinks once, and then screams, "ANNA!"

"Geoffrey, please. How many times have I told you, you don't need to yell. My desk is ten feet away."

Geoffrey stares at her, then at the... the thing must be a hallucination, and then back at her, and oh, he hasn't felt quite like this in some time.

"Geoffrey, what is it? I have work to do. And you know it never goes well when you act like yourself in front of new people."

"New people?" Geoffrey asks, daring to hope.

"I think she means me," says the hallucination.

"I'm sorry," Anna says, turning away from Geoffrey and speaking to what Geoffrey has, to this point, assumed was empty air. "He doesn't always make the best first impression, but everyone says he's really quite brilliant."

"Anna, do you see the rather large lizard?" Geoffrey asks, one sort of terror receding and a whole new type rising.

"Frog, actually," the clearly-not-a-hallucination says. "Kermit the Frog of the Muppets, in your office immediately upon our arrival. As requested. If you could just show me where we'll be rehearsing, I'll let everyone know they can get to work."

"I am not mentally equipped for this," Geoffrey mutters, stalking out of the room, and behind him he can hear Anna saying:

"It's not always this bad. I promise. Sometimes it's worse."

2.

"No, no, no. It's all wrong." Darren says, storming up the aisle, hurling his script at the stage. "I told you. I want weird. You're giving me quirky. I don't want quirky. Quirky is cute, and cute is garbage. When I say I want weird, I mean I want you to make me truly feel the inherent freakish nature of your soul."

"But I don't have a freakish nature," the actress says, and Darren can believe that. Her name is some simple common thing, Sarah or Mary or Jane, and he can't even really be bothered to remember it right now. She has no name, no soul, no deep well of joy or pain. She is just another ingénue, a nothing, a simple wisp of bland and boring and utterly insipid predictability in every choice she makes. It's not her fault he supposes The entire cast is lacking true character, too young and flatter than the pages they read from. It's so clear in their faces every time they look at him, desperate for his approval but cowering in fear of his reprisals.

"Yes, that is becoming overwhelmingly obvious," Darren turns his back on them, beseeching out to the universe, "Doesn't anyone here understand what it means to be truly strange, utterly misunderstood by the world?"

And in that moment, a screaming comes across the sky, rising, rising and joining in a beautiful chorus of catastrophe. The building shakes with a violent impact and a voice comes from on high.

"Another on the nose landing for Gonzo the Great!"

"It's him," Darren gasps. "He came! Gather round, ignorant children. The universe has seen fit to teach you a lesson today."

The rustling of silk and a rasping fricative sound follows Darren's decree, and within seconds, Gonzo is with them in his glory. He dangles a scant few inches off the ground, his descent stopped short by the tangled harness of a parachute. Darren kneels before him. He is everything Darren remembers and hoped, his silver cape trailing behind him and goggles askew on his face. Darren wishes he had sufficient time to simply bask in the shining aura of oddity that bleeds from the fuzzy blue body, the true soul of wit and wisdom, swaying before him.

"Hey. Darren, right? Would you mind," Gonzo says, gesturing to his nose, which is jutting at a much different angle than Darren remembers from their first encounter in Los Angeles. "Just grab it and give it a nice twist. I'd say about thirty degrees counter clockwise should do it."

"Of course, of course. It's my honor." Darren takes the proffered proboscis firmly in hand and turns as directed, barely able to contain his awe that he has been so chosen to return the face of Gonzo the Great to its proper impropriety. "I cannot even begin to express the depths of my gratitude that you have joined us, Gonzo. My invitation was little more than a fleeting dream sent on the fragile wings of hope. I suffer from a cast that has done nothing but lead lives of the most tedious mediocrity. Please, can't you help them understand what it means to feel, deeply and powerfully, the glorious strangeness of the true self."

"Uh. Sure," says Gonzo. "That's easy. I'll just need a pair of tap shoes, thirty gallons of pistachio pudding--tapioca will do if you don't have any pistachio--a ten pound bowling ball, and seventeen mousetraps. And would somebody please find my darling Camilla and let her know I'm okay? That was a rough launch, and I don't want her to worry. She's about yay high, with white feathers and the prettiest little beak a chicken could wish for. "

Darren spins on the dumbstruck, gape-mouthed actors. "What are you all just standing there for. Mousetraps. Pudding. Are your ears as broken as your souls? Go! Do something to prove you're not all completely useless."

He feels a peace falls over him. The strongest, most certain optimism he's felt in years.

3.

Ellen is attempting to fix the mess made of her coffee when she hears a voice from her distant past.

"Ellen? Ellen Fanshaw! Darling, it's so good to see you again. Oooh, kissy-kissy," Piggy rushes at her in the middle of the café, a whirl of blonde and pink. Ellen catches her up in an embrace and allows her cheeks to be kissed, leads Piggy to a table.

"Piggy? Oh, what a wonderful surprise! Geoffrey didn't tell me you'd be here this season. Oh, silly me, Geoffrey probably doesn't even remember me talking about you. He's a bit like that. Nevermind him. Where have they got you? Oh, dear. Not the nurse. You're nowhere near ready for the nurse. God, I hope you aren't, because otherwise that means I am."

"Of course not, silly." Piggy waves off the suggestion easily. "Moi and vous are timeless, as you well know."

"Clearly." Ellen looks, really looks, and says, "Goodness, you truly haven't aged a day, and it's been-- well it feels like positively forever. So not the nurse. And you're obviously not in the voices of Canada series. I mean, you would have told me if you were Canadian baco--"

"Watch it, Fanshaw" Piggy frowns, voice dipping low toward a growl, and Ellen has seen what comes after that, knows better than to risk it. Again.

"Sorry. Sorry, dear." She holds her hands up in appeasement. "That was tacky. Utterly unforgivable of me. But what does bring you here?"

"Oh, you know, how it is," Piggy sighs. "I was prepared to take a break from everything and spend some quality time on my memiors when Kermie revealed that he had arranged for our fabulous show to be brought to your lovely little festival. With moi as the star, of course. It was too much to resist, conquering a new frontier of fame." Piggy tosses her hair imperiously, and if Ellen didn't find her entirely charming, it might be hard to take her complete ease with and belief in her own talent. "And you, darling? What perfection can I expect from you?"

"We've brought in a new director this season. She's young and quite the risk-taker. Somehow she managed to convinced the petrified remains on our board to let her take on an inverted-gender production. So it's Mackers for me." Ellen shrugs, trying to brush it off as though it's nothing, as though she isn't positively giddy with the challenge of it.

"Oh my. How simply very!" Piggy says, clasping her hands together in the sort of rapture that Ellen knows is usually reserved for reviewing her own press clippings or a particularly lavish dessert.

"It is! It really, really is! And so refreshing after my third go at Gertrude in a decade." Ellen grins, "I was just becoming resigned to never getting to do anything new. At least, not until I became the ingénue of the rest home and the dementia made it all new again. This, I must say feels much better than finding myself in an octogenarian Romeo and Juliet."

The twin trill of cell phones interrupts them, and "Shit," Ellen says, just a split second after Piggy's "Oh, brother."

"I am so sorry, but if I don't leave right this second, I'm going to be irredeemably late for our first read," Ellen says, genuinely apologetic as she gathers her half drunk coffee and untouched bagel.

"Yes, moi too," Piggy sighs, enveloping Ellen in a firm hug. "But we simply must catch up more. Dinner. This weekend. Just us girls. There's so much to talk about."

4.

Three weeks into the rehearsals, four weeks after finally, finally getting a chance to prove himself, and Scooter is regretting every decision he's ever made. But mostly the ones he made tonight. Except for coming to the bar. That was a good decision.

"Do you smell that?" Maria asks, sitting down next to him at the bar. "It's kind of like.... charred hair and fish?"

Scooter just groans. His beer is empty and so is his other beer, which might begin to explain why he's got his forehead resting on the sticky surface of the bar. The rest of the explanation is linked to the fact that if he looks up, he might see Crazy Harry and Lou sitting across the bar and laughing. He can't be held responsible for his actions if that happens. Not today.

"Rough day?" Maria asks, catching the bartender's attention and gesturing for two fresh shots of whiskey.

"Actors," Scooter mutters. Turning his head just far enough to look up at Maria. "I hate actors. And comedians. And acrobats, and fire swallowers, and everyone."

"Oh, I will fucking drink to that." Maria tosses back her shot, pushes the other toward Scooter. "Come on. Let's out of here."

5.

There are things Basil expects every year: retreads, the joy of eviscerating the egos of eager but dull young things who think he'll go easy on them just because they flirted back, Geoffrey making at least three public spectacles. All of these are such low odds that Basil wouldn't ever even bother placing the bet. But a bear telling the jokes that Milton Berle stole from Henny Youngman is a whole new unpleasant experience, and one he cannot let go unremarked upon.

The day the review is printed a wrinkled old codger stops him in the street. He leans heavily on his cane with one hand and holds out a copy of Basil's review and a felt tip pen with the other.

"You're our kind of fella," he says.

"Yeah. That was one grizzly review!" says the possibly older man to his left, and they dissolve into body-shaking laughter.

Basil signs his name in great looping script and continues on to lunch with a grin. He could get used to this kind of thing.