"I schooled with a certain director of some renown," Darren Nichols tells his cast, on the first day of rehearsal for the season's big show. "For propriety's sake, I shan't say who, but if you know your Canadian theater scene, as of course you do, it won't be my fault if you recognize a few infamous details."
His Jenny Anydots snickers.
Darren is in Lodz, talking to a class of Polish high school students. He tosses his scarf over his shoulder and takes a seat on the desk, lounging in what he hopes is a provocative, while commanding, pose. "Years later, I had the privilege of working with the man again," he goes on. "And though our schoolyard feud was so old as to be gathering dust, this director saw fit to --" Darren shakes his head.
"What feud?" asks someone. Darren scans the crowd and Macavity waggles an eyebrow.
"A feud, in English, can take many forms," Darren says. "If you'll open your dictionary --"
"Excuse me," says Macavity. "I know what a feud is, if you don't mind. I was inquiring as to the nature of the feud, since it seemed --"
"Yes!" agrees Darren, leaping down from the desk and trying to remember where he'd left off in his storytelling. "I suppose it makes sense you should need the backstory. You can't be expected to have heard all the great tales of the legitimate theater out here with your Stanislavsky and your clown schools."
He thinks he sees Grizabella send Macavity a look of lusty sympathy, and he resists the urge to remind her to save it for the stage. "This, my young friends," Darren says. "Is an epic tale of revenge, worthy of being set to music. And as revenge is the very theme of the production we are soon to mount, I only thought it relevant on this, our first day of rehearsal."
A half an hour has passed. In another thirty minutes the kids will have to leave, as their parents come and collect them for dinner and the custodial staff comes along to lock the cafetorium for the night. Darren swipes his scarf around his neck and begins.
"I am in the dormitories, enjoying my time among the young strapping lads at my University, when it comes time to stage our Junior Year production for spring commencement, to allow the bourgeois to bear witness to our creations, or at least offer the parents an idea of what their twenty-five grand in tuition is buying them. That year, my House elects Romeo and Juliet, and I, of course, become our Juliet."
A cat laughs. "Shush," says another. Darren continues.
"Nothing makes an actor feel quite as Shakespearean as when he's strapping on a corset and doing up his curls," Darren muses. "It is as if one is standing in the very Globe, waiting to shock crowds of placid, vanilla Victorians. Out, damned spot! Out, I say!"
A hand goes up. "Isn't that Lady Macbeth, sir?" Mr. Mistoffelees asks. "I thought you were Juliet."
"Of course it is," Darren scoffs. "The theater is a living orgasm! It evolves!"
"Living organism, sir?" Mistoffelees asks, and his boyish smile is bright and innocent despite incessant poking by his neighbor, Jellilorum, or maybe Cassandra.
Darren swipes at his sweaty face with the tail of his scarf. Rehearsal will be over and he still hasn't shared his tale, the story of how he learned to love the theater, the story of revenge that has inspired every one of his casts on every first day of rehearsal since that fateful crossdressing R&J. "Listen, peasants!" he shrieks, and the already quiet auditorium gets quieter.
"As I was saying!" Darren hoists himself up to sit, and then stand, on the desk. "I have the role of Juliet. My adversary, the aforementioned and nameless Canadian director of some renown, was dubiously cast as my Romeo. As this was a workshop production for parents and guests, we were encouraged to bring our own inspiration to the text, demonstrate our range, so to speak. N'est-ce pas?"
"Naturally, days before our performance, I was stricken with what can only be called genius," Darren says. "So I hurry across the campus to share my illuminated vision with my Romeo, who is rendered positively speechless by my interpretation of the play. In fact, my radical vision for a new final scene so moves my dear Romeo that it brings tears to his eyes, and at that moment, I knew I was destined for a life in the theater."
"What was your idea?" asks Skimbleshanks.
"Well so at first I thought, suicide pact, how very blah!" Darren flings a hand in the air, then lets it drop and brings it down to cover his heart. "And then I realized, it is most clearly a ruse, a murder-suicide, couched in pretties to soften the blow for the innocent crowds. And we are not innocent! We are sinners!" Darren punches the air with his fist now. "And so, no pansy-ass poison for us, no, our show would end with a duel to the death!"
This time both Skimbleshanks and the bright-eyed Mr. Mistoffelees both laugh out loud, and a couple of the chorus cats join in, hiding their giggles behind their paws.
"Picture it," says Darren, ignoring the children. "Opening matinee, Commencement Weekend. Theater critics pack the audience, along with parents and younger siblings and several members of the student body and faculty. I am a symphony in satin and velvet, and my Romeo is quite suitable himself, having opted for a costume that lacks a shirt, for the good of us all. And then, comes the final!"
No one's laughing right this minute. Darren goes on. "Just as Romeo enters the church to weep over the body of his beloved, I leap to my feet and wield my foil! Romeo is unarmed, his love replaced as suddenly with terror! Because such is the way of the world, love and terror intertwined, and as I thrust and parried, spun and slashed, I recited a speech of my own composition, telling the story of how Juliet, heartbroken, was driven to rage and murder. And then I stabbed him dead, right there on stage, with the vicious and cruel power of ill-fated love. We got ovations."
Darren wipes his eyes. Telling the story has brought back memories, like how later that night, Geoffrey had cornered him outside the black box rehearsal stage. "What?" Geoffrey had spat. "What, no, seriously, WHAT did you think you were doing out there?"
"Demonstrating the power of love," Darren had said.
"You ad-libbed a Shakespeare monologue. You created a duel between Romeo and Juliet! And you decide to spring this on me during the show?" Geoffrey sputtered.
"Theater is a living orgasm," Darren had said.
"Apparently," Geoffrey had said, and scoffed, and left, and then Darren was all alone, and he sat down behind the theater in his petticoats and wig and smoked a cigarette in the dark.
"Years later..." Darren goes on, gesticulating at his Polish cast. "My Romeo returned to me. So moved by my performance decades earlier, he felt the need to reprise it just this past year. I was rehearsing, much as I am now, and all of a sudden this madman breezes in with an épee in hand, and the next thing I know I'm in hospital having stitches to repair my face!" Darren leans down, so the class can see his scar.
"Such is the power of revenge," he says. "As we will learn throughout our production this semester."
"I didn't realize this play was about revenge," says Old Deuteronomy. "I thought it was about...actually, I have no idea what it's about. There's a train? I think."
But Darren is still thinking of Geoffrey, what Geoffrey learned from him in school, what Geoffrey learned from him at New Burbage, and what Geoffrey would learn from Darren when he returned from Poland, rich with the experience of the European theater scene, and having staged the hottest production of Cats since she premiered in London three decades ago. "Everything is about revenge," Darren says, licking his lips. "And about love."