The setting December sun across the prairie shines through the cracks, illuminating the inside of the barn better than the single bulb over the bare metal seats in the audience where the principal actors sit.
"We’ll take it, it’s perfect!" Darren Nichols decides, from where he's standing on the stage. The icy wind is blowing his red scarf and the publicity photographer snaps a few shots.
"Oh my God, Darren," Ellen screeches, "what part of summer stock did you not understand?" She's encased in a long fluffy down parka, but her boots were chosen for looks, not warmth.
"This is 'Twelfth Night’ -- the depth of winter amid the heart of darkness," he enthuses, "I want the audience to literally shiver through the play. The experience will be visceral."
"And it'll drive up sales in the bar," Richard says. If he wasn’t so invested in Darren pushing the envelope -- and if their theater hadn’t lost its occupancy license until the new roof was installed -- he’d shut down the idea. But as it is, they need an alternative space, and at least it'll be cheap to rent out this shack for the short run.
Darren goes on, "We can build the set out of ice --"
The set designer shakes his head at once. "The stage can't handle the weight. As it is, we'll have to fasten down the flats if we don't want them blowing over in a stiff breeze."
Anna is busy writing down lists of supplies. "Electric heaters --"
"No heaters!" Darren yells.
"Heaters!" Ellen yells back, "for backstage at least!"
"And the bar," Cyril adds. "It's not on, letting audience members freeze to their wine glasses."
“Mulled wine, hot toddies,” Anna says as she writes.
“Medics on hand to treat frostbite,” Geoffrey adds.
“The truss won’t support spots,” the head of the lighting crew tells Darren, “and I know the electrical circuit can’t handle it.”
“Kerosene footlights?” Darren suggests.
“No good. The fire inspector remembers your Hamlet.”
They end up bribing the fire inspector, and incorporate battery-operated electroluminescent panels into the costumes.
When he’d hears about the location, Nahum just laughs and laughs. He doesn’t have to brave hypothermia in the sticks outside New Burbage every night for the run.
December 28: The night of the critics preview is a success only on-stage. Darren goes on about how the darkness of the stage and the cold of the theater are appropriate to the history of the play, how they are are difficult but courageous artistic choices. Luckily, the press remembers just how batshit insane Darren has been in the past when pursuing his artistic choices and buy into the concept. The copious free Irish coffees undoubtedly help.
Backstage they end up taping programs over the larger holes in the two dressing rooms to keep out the cold. In a rare display of common sense, Darren agreed to costumes that accommodated thermal underwear. It’s still not comfortable, especially for the leads. At least the critics are suffering with them.
“Slow down, for god’s sake,” Darren complains backstage. “I want the dialog brisk, but understandable.” They ignore him. At breakneck speed, the evening performance is shorter than usual, but the critics don’t seem to mind. They already know the script.
January 2: Opening night is a full house. A chilly wind makes the evening considerably colder. The propane stove in the bar can’t keep up with demand, so the barman plugs in the electric hotplate. But then the space-heater in the women’s dressing room blows the fuse and plunges the entire building into darkness. The women decide that warmth is more important than privacy, and they crowd into the other dressing room. It’s standing-room-only, but at least they can share body heat, which is better than the poor schmucks in the audience.
Ellen finds herself paying $20 for a pair of government surplus footwarmers. By the end of the evening, the black market has extended to the audience, and the price has gone up to $50.
January 6: The house is half empty. The threat of an oncoming blizzard has subscribers staying away in droves, and when the wind-whipped snow does arrive, the wind drives it between the shack’s board walls, the noise threatening to overwhelm the dialog. The snow dusts everything: stage, performers, and audience. “The snow it snoweth, every fucking day,” mutters Cyril backstage, spraying more fixative over his Toby Belch makeup. The final “Hey ho, the wind and the rain” is a perfunctory thing before everybody in the building rushes the bar.
An hour goes by quickly, mostly spent consuming flaming shots of whatever whiskey the bar had left. By the end of that time, Ellen is lit. She’s improvising dialog in character as Olivia as she cuddles in a corner of the bar with Geoffrey (Malvolio) and an audience member who is sharing his large warm cloak. Their breaths mingle under the really quite thick cloak, and if hands wander a bit, well.
Darren ducks in to their huddle just long enough to watch Olivia and Malvolio make out, before inspiration lights his eyes and he starts muttering notes into his handheld recorder, recasting the play as a tragedy of the thwarted cross-class love between the Countess and her half-mad steward, with both Viola and Sebastian as trouble-mongers from Anonymous wearing Guy Fawkes masks -- no, better, they’re with #OccupyIllyria. Orsino will represent the federal government and Feste, the press. Ellen and Geoffrey ignore him, but the young man from the audience is enthralled. He’s no more sober than the rest of them, and tells Darren that he’s never felt so close to the actors, to the spirit of the theater before, and Darren is clearly a genius, and could they get to know one another better elsewhere, since the bar seems to be running dry? He mentions that his car has an excellent heater... what does Darren want to do? Darren smiles, the warmth and the vodka tonics making him feel ridiculously agreeable. Even though the young man won’t recognize the text (his own words, Darren thinks, are as pearls before swine, and yet, this particular swine is warm and appreciative) Darren clasps his hand and meets his eyes and says, “What you will.”