A Midsummer Night's Dream: Refurbished
Hermia was dead.
Oh gosh, what am I saying—the actress playing Hermia. Miss Sandra Montgomery-Harding. Also, she wasn’t really dead. Unless you count six shots of tequila, a gallon of vodka, and a glug of whiskey as a “deadly” cocktail. On our opening night, Hermia/Sandra was draped across the actors’ couch amongst the fairy wings and robes, looking very dead, but of course, she was not really dead. I suppose I could have led with that.
This whole theatre thing is getting to me. You know, be BIG, be bold, be ~dramatic~. I’m simply practicing what I was taught.
“Sandra, darling!” screeched Edna, and her mouse body, strapped in satin Titania wings, barreled me aside. After every rehearsal, we had to hot glue the contraptions back together, jesting that their droopy demeanor was actually a good omen for the show. At this moment, they didn’t seem to be working their magic. Edna began rolling Sandra like sourdough and myself and three other members of the “A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Refurbished!” cast began to poke and prod the lump on the couch, too. “Agents are here, for goodness sake! We’re on in an hour!” Edna sobbed, while Maisel and Joel (Helena and Puck, respectively) stroked her hair and chirped that “all will be fine,” though our minds were wandering to what the headlines in the Gazette tomorrow morning might say: “LEAD ACTOR UNCONSCIOUS, THE SHOW WILL NOT GO ON!” Oh, or how about “REFURBISHED CAST NEEDS MORE REFURBISHING!”
As a thespian (IGCSE and A-level Drama, mind you), I had seen all forms of dressing-room-drama: cubes of derelict sets, stars of missing actors, and even the occasional circle of an earthquake on opening night. This, however, Sandra’s lopsided body, was Edna’s first encounter with theatre tragedy, and I know this because she had not been cast in Hamlet. I hadn’t either, but that is beside the point.
“What have I done?!” Edna bellowed, since it was her who had convinced us all, Sandra included, to the bar across the street only a few hours earlier. To hell with men and we cheered. We had just discovered Miguel, our director and Sandra’s now ex-boyfriend, with Bottom (you know my tricks, the actress playing Bottom) in the props cupboard, seductively sandwiched between the Renaissance gowns and cardboard trees. According to Miguel, he was merely giving last minute acting tips to Bottom/Veronica but when they started reading their lines in that dusky room, it was as if Shakespeare himself was crafting the beginnings of their aphrodisiac affair.
Bottom doesn’t even have a love interest in the play. I knew this because I had actually read the original script, which is far more than can be said for my castmates. Here I am, a Puck understudy while the real Puck/Joel prances around like a perfectly puerile pixie beneath a city skyline, oblivious to the fact that they didn’t even have skyscrapers in the 1600s. When Miguel proposed refurbishing the play, he really meant refurbished. After spending years scurrying around London, nose smashed against the stage door, headshots sweating in my hand, my resume was still chockablock with the lines understudy, woman number 2, and tree. Sandra and I graduated from university together only a few years ago, and she’s already performed in the West End twice.
“Sandra, please! It was the spell of the props cupboard,” Miguel wailed outside the bar, and we took a sip (Sandra, gulps) for every time he mentioned that an “Elizabethan ghost” had compelled him to kiss Veronica. It’s glorious drinking in a bar at 2pm, when it’s so bright that you can see fingerprints dusted onto the glasses, the potential corner caves where the mice lurk, and just how stale yet slimy the peanuts at the bar seem. And, amongst Sandra’s exasperating wails in between our group shots (we were on 3 each, Sandra on 6), I didn’t just feel like an understudy. By the time Oberon/Ralf joined us, trooping in an ensemble of fairies and a few other understudies, Sandra and Edna were both floundering on top of the table to Dancing Queen, Joel was swinging his script around like knickers at a Tom Jones concert, and I was capturing all of these memories (blackmail) for later on my phone.
Now, as Miguel battered the locked dressing room door, Sandra groaned, her eyes fluttering open, but she still remained incoherent. Maisel suggested that Sandra might want to remove some of the alcohol from her system, and so, similarly to how we transported her back from the bar, each assigned to a limb of the rag doll, crab-walking back across the street, we relocated her to the toilet, while Edna soothed Sandra in the traditional Shakespearean vernacular because “thou knowest that this will calm her.” I sure did knowest this. Sandra and I had been cast together in Much Ado in our first year of school. While I prepared to grace the stage as woman number 2, Sandra spouted “thou, thee, and thine” for 10 weeks straight to prepare for the role of Beatrice. From then on, it was as if that so-called cursed Elizabethan ghost had nestled itself in me, summoned only to trip me up in every single audition (I’ve literally tripped in 7 separate callbacks, once into a director’s lap, who was appalled, mistaken to believe that I was seducing him for the role. Sandra got it instead). However, the moment I saw Sandra hunkered and heaving over the toilet, splashing recycled vodka all over Joel’s bare-Puck-feet, while Edna shrieked to Maisel to fetch cold towels, I knew that the ghost had finally floated from my ship, dived head-first into Sandra’s mop of curls, and sunk itself deep into the cadaver that now slumped on the bathroom tiles.
I kid! Sandra was alive, just blasphemously woozy from all the tears, and alcohol, and dancing, and… what else? Oh, the 2 sleeping pills that I had snuck into her 7th shot.
I suppose I could have led with that, too. Ah well, there’s no use living in the past.
“I shall play Hermia,” I announced.
Sandra whimpered from the toilet bowl, and I took this as permission to rip the scarf from her neck and dress myself as, no, not an understudy, but as an Athenian lady of the court. In a stuffy fog of hairspray fumes and above the gossiping of the fairies, I uttered my very first line of forty-eight: “So is Lysander.” It was up to me to salvage William Shakespeare’s legacy from this refurbishment of a play.
With a burst of ghostly energy, Sandra seized my waist, slurring “NoOOo,” but, like a canker blossom, she was easy to shake off onto the clothing couch. Cautiously, Maisel, and Joel nodded at me and offered pitiful pats atop Sandra’s head before hurrying to get into costume themselves. They knew the show must go on. Edna blew a kiss to the former Hermia and offered a half smile before fluttering off to Hair & Makeup herself, “Do forgive us, darling. There are agents here.” Miguel finally burst into the room with Veronica and her donkey ears right behind him.
“My love,” Miguel dribbled Sandra’s arm in kisses, “it was a one-time mistake! The worst thing I could have ever done to you.” Despite the vomiting, the sleeping pills must have still been roaming around Sandra’s system because the fury in her eyes began to cloud and her eyelids… closed… once… twice… capturing the image of Veronica thrusting herself atop Miguel as her last before Sandra descended back into oblivion. I deserved a pat on the back. I hadn’t realized that my love letters, as part of Operation Take Down Sandra, were so compelling. When I had slipped the first note into Veronica’s purse— it was harmlessly saucy, a “you know where you can put your Bottom?” type flirting that women go mad for during the Midsummer— she hastily crumpled it into her pocket. However, after Miguel had received 14 lines of dripping amour and started winking to Veronica while his girlfriend was distracted during rehearsals, Veronica pressed each letter as a delicate flower into her diary. Why yes, thank you for asking! I will give you a sneak peek into my seduction:
Shall I compare thee to the Midsummer?
Miguel, your talent shines bright as the sun.
Our forbidden love is one big bummer,
Meet me in the props cupboard for some fun?
“Thirty minutes until curtain call,” broadcasted Alison, the stage manager, from the intercom. In front of the comatose Sandra, Miguel and Veronica had begun to kiss fervently, his fingers stroking her ass ears as she whinnied, “I love you” over and over again. Bloody hell, I hoped that Sandra would stay knocked out all night. I left the man and donkey to their affair and wandered backstage to find my Lysander/Dev, Cambridge graduate, four-time West Ender, and god-like chiseled body that would rest impeccably in my arms, a moment I’d be able to relive from the play’s recording forever. All I needed was 10 minutes to kindle the chemistry between us. As I peeped into Hair & Makeup, I only saw Edna and Joel, both decked out in their brilliant green and purple regalia, standing over something that looked like an overturned moose.
“What happened?” I injected but immediately saw a stocky Ralf snoozing on the ground. Next to him lay my tube of sleeping pills, alongside the early drafts of the love letters, and my notebook with a page open that read, “MASTER PLAN.” In hindsight, maybe that was a little obvious, but I was trying to be dramatic, sue me! Tears beaded in Edna’s eyes as she glanced at her fairy King husband and back at me. Joel aimed a hairdryer out in front of him. Seriously, what was going on? Who did this? My cunning scheme was meant to end with Sandra’s demise, and I was even planning on buying her dinner one evening to secretly make up for knocking her out and destroying her love life.
“I have no idea why you’ve done this, but we’ve caught you!” Edna wept and kneeled over Ralf’s body, “How is Titania supposed to act without her Oberon?” Her wings had perked up and they glittered, no longer our droopy good omen. Joel stared at me from behind the Dyson Supersonic (in pink) and stammered, “I can’t believe you used to be my understudy and now, you’ve turned into this monster! What are you doing going around and offing the stars of the show?” I breathed deeply and surveyed the room, wondering whether I should knock them both out, while I uncovered who else was dabbling in revenge. Hairspray in their eyes and a quick thud to the head might do the trick.
Just joking! I knew I had to confess. My palms began to sweat but as I wiped them on my dress, Edna and Joel interpreted this action as me reaching for my sleeping pill gun and charged at me, screeching like bonobos, “HELP! GET HER!” I cowered, ready for a face full of blistering air from the hairdryer, but instead, Edna and Joel thumped to the ground. Two whooshes of air had fired in the form of sleeping darts from behind me and stuck upright in the arms of the fairy Queen and sprite.
I ducked and twirled around, but the snipers had disappeared. Sweat poured from me as I realized that I couldn’t simultaneously play all 4 roles in the show. There were some scenes when Hermia, Puck, Oberon, and Titania all stood on the stage together. Also, refocusing my priorities, there was somebody else on an actor rampage and they were trying to frame me for it! I knew the ghost would return from Sandra to claim its throne in my body one day. Perhaps I wasn’t meant for the stage, after all. Head hung, I wished that one of the darts would pierce my back, shooting sweet sleeping juice into my veins that would, first, discredit my role in Sandra’s drugging, second, induce some much-needed Shakespeare hallucinations, and third, prevent me from performing tonight and ruining my debut. The ghost would make sure of another trip or a slipped line, boos and hisses to follow. Lord, what fool of an actor, am I?
“Twenty minutes before the show starts!” Alison buzzed backstage, unaware of the chaos unfolding here. I hadn’t even had the chance to tell gorgeous Dev that we would be lovers, so how could I share that 4 of the main characters had been drugged by some sleuthing marksman? (I elected to flush my diary and the pills down the toilet and lump Sandra in with the sleep slayings. I’d tell Edna and Joel that what they had thought about me was a hallucination). In fact, I was not the bad guy in this story. Me drugging Sandra (though remember that “it was the assassin,” if anybody asks) was born out of respect for our opening-night audience. With the fervor of over 400 years of simmering soliloquies and meandering misadventures, I would perform Hermia like no one had seen before, overheating the viewers in rage when she is abandoned by Lysander in the forest or having them throw rice at her feet when she is finally wed to him. However, by incapacitating the mythical monarchs of the play, making it so that the show cannot go on, ruining the evening for so many eager theatregoers, the sniper was simply vile. Without a moment to lose I knew that I must tell Miguel of this fight / Then to security will he that night / Pursue the fiend; and for this intelligence / If I have thanks, it is a dear expense / But herein mean I to enrich my pain / To have my role thither and back again.
I seized the hairdryer from Joel’s clammy hands and ran out backstage with Alison’s ten-minute announcement blaring from the ceiling. Oh god, the bodies of Demetrius/Max and Maisel lolled against the kitchenette door, the darts punctured into their necks. Beautiful Dev, frozen like a resting marble statue, was not far from them, and I took a moment to mourn for the lovers that would now never unite on stage together. I swerved through our rehearsal space to find 5 of the Mechanicals lumped in a pyramid, Thisbe/John with a note tucked his hand that decreed, “you’re next!” My grip tightened around the hairdryer and I darted towards the props cupboard to wrap myself in a thick carpet or, perhaps, there was an astronaut suit? Anything thick enough to protect my dear self from that sleeping potion bullet. Side-stepping stupefied fairies, swift steps stole me past the dressing room (Miguel and Veronica suggestively sleeping from darts in their bottoms, Sandra still out, too) and I nosedived into a pile of props, shoving a hard hat atop my head and knotting a foxy faux fur throw around my neck as my armor.
From outside, squeaking shoes indicated a hustle and I heard the sluggish thud of Hippolyta/Lucy sinking the ground. I slapped on a petticoat and locked myself into a corset (the metal wiring in these garments would surely fend off any darts, right?), just as the pitter-pattering of footsteps halted outside the entrance. I sensed more than one assassin waiting for me and from my hiding spot their shadows morphed into one gigantic monster, necks elongated like a gaggle of geese with sinewy limbs. Deep breath. If I was about to perform my one woman show to the audience tonight, in less than 10 minutes, in fact, I had to charge.
Hairdryer first, I kicked my legs, petticoat ballooning, over the props pile, “FOR SANDRA!” I bellowed and suddenly caught sight of who the geese snipers were. Decked out in bright makeup, wings, and Athenian garb, I squinted, because standing right before me, equipped with Nerf Gun shooters and scripts, were a band of my fellow understudies.
“What the— ,” I asked, dazed, “What are you guys doing? Why are you trying to attack me?” I held the hairdryer out in front of me and hovered over the hot air button.
Arya, the most outspoken of all us understudies, stepped forward and pushed the hairdryer aside. Just as Alison announced the 5-minute curtain call, Arya winked, “We’ve got a show to put on, Miss Hermia.” Around me, all the understudies dropped their guns and began jumping around, stretching their vocal cords “PETER-PIPER-PICKED-A-PECK-OF-PICKLED-PEPPERS,” and blowing raspberries with their mouths. Arya meandered me around backstage while she explained away my incomprehension, “I found out about your master plan a few weeks ago—you really should hide your belongings better—and was absolutely maddened. Not because of the drugging, Sandra is a nuisance, but because I hadn’t thought of it myself.” On our way towards the stage, hopping over a few warm bodies, Kenny took over the account, “Us understudies never get the chance to shine, even though we know we’re just as or even more capable than the regular actors.” Mel popped up by my left shoulder and continued, “Hence, Arya gathered us together and proposed a coup, on the exact same day as your takedown-Sandra plan. That way, we’d all be able to join you on the stage as the new Midsummer’s cast.” For a moment, everybody halted and beamed at their efforts in such a way that even Shakespeare would be proud of all the twists and turns we’d been caught in.
“But wait…” I questioned, “why did you frame me? What was that creepy note for?” I shuddered, thinking back to the forensic evidence of the pills, my diary, the scrap of paper thrust in John’s hand. From the steps of the stage, the group chortled that it was just for fun. Mel (who was cast as the actual understudy to Hermia) also added that I’d stolen her moment to shine, and although she knew Puck pretty well to play him tonight, it was my payback. I suppose I deserved it.
From the curtain, Alison emerged, brows furrowed that the entire cast had been re-cast, but instinctively gestured 2 minutes until curtain call. Arya/the new Theseus tore off my props-cupboard-gear and gathered the cast together in a tight huddle and whispered “Tonight, we show them how the understudies can really refurbish a play.” With 1-minute remaining, I strode into place on the dark stage and waited for the show to begin, no more an understudy, woman number 2, or a tree, but finally, as Hermia.