basementsongs

StingMatt and I had a plan. Fed up with the director of our high school fall play, we decided to play a practical joke on her. We were seniors; we thought we ruled the school. Even though we still had to worry about grades and the prospect of getting into college, we carried with us an air of invincibility. We thought we were kings.

October, 1987. The air was cooler; the days were shorter and the leaves dangled for life in shades of red and gold. When we weren’t studying for AP English, running cross country or out on the practice field with the marching band, we were rehearsing in the junior high auditorium on its sturdy old stage and hundreds of empty seats in front of us. Matt and I would typically carpool to rehearsals, generally in the Whomobile. To psyche ourselves up we’d blast the car stereo and sing at the top of our lungs. We’d listen to U2’s The Joshua Tree and Sting’s …Nothing Like the Sun. The latter album, with its chilly demeanor, intricate music and thoughtful lyrics, felt better suited for the autumn. My favorite song was “Straight to My Heart”; Matt liked Sting’s collaboration with Gil Evans, the cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing.”  We both loved “Englishman in New York.” Sting’s tribute to his friend, writer Quentin Crisp, has a whimsical tone, tinged with Sting’s typical melancholy and Branford Marsalis’s weeping saxophone. It will always remind me of my friendship with Matt and the evening we rewrote Agatha Christie.

The play we were rehearsing was Christie’s long running The Mousetrap. Those of you unfamiliar with the murder mystery, a quick synopsis:

Mollie and Giles Ralston are the proprietors of a hotel and find themselves snowed in with four guests. An additional traveler arrives after he runs his car into a snowdrift and soon thereafter, a Detective Trotter shows up on skis to warn everyone that he thinks a murderer may be headed to the hotel. When one of the guests is murdered, everyone realizes that any one of them could be the real killer, even the hosts themselves.

MousetrapI was cast as Christopher Wren, a hyperactive, peculiar young man who is the first suspected of being the murdered. I imagined myself as the dashing leading man type, but the director thought I was better suited as the whack job that may be a killer. Matt was cast Major Metcalf. The two of us were in the play for a good time, living a dream of emulating our idols, like Steve Martin, John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd. I’ll tell you, Matt was a natural on the stage and  lively presence amongst the cast and crew (he even claimed to have had relations with one of the actresses in the back gymnasium one night after rehearsal). Our director was an absentminded, unorganized, overwhelmed woman who paid little mind to what was happening on stage. Occasionally she would bark out comments from her 10th row seat in the empty auditorium, usually with a direction for something that occurred 20 minutes earlier. Otherwise, she spent her time complaining, searching for her keys or staring off into space. While it was liberating to be running the show on our own, it was difficult to know how well we were performing without constructive feedback from our director.

The cast’s frustration grew until finally, Matt and I came up with a plan to have some fun. One evening before rehearing the second act of the play, we decided to jump from approximately five minutes into the second act to the very end and the big reveal of the murderer (a plot twist I won’t reveal here). Our rewrite turned The Mousetrap into a bloodbath in which nearly everyone gets shot down in cold blood. We turned 30 minutes of stage time into 10 minutes of improvisation.

The conspiracy quickly spread through the ranks. After a very quick discussion about who would say what and who would die when, everyone took to their places and commenced the second act rehearsal. Of course, after calling action, our director went to clipping coupons or nodding off. Soon the fun began. Brian, the actor playing the murderer, pulled out his prop gun and shot down two of the characters, including me. I’d like to say I didn’t ham it up, but come on — when have you ever know an actor not to draw out a death scene? Two more characters were shot, leaving poor Mollie and the murderer standing alone. Brian then went into his final monologue from the play. Just as he’s about to kill Mollie, Matt, er, Major Metcalf burst through the door and shot down the killer.

From out in the empty seats, the director’s voice called out, “Wait a minute, where are we?” We all burst out laughing. Matt and I looked at each other with broad smiles. For one brief moment, we had owned the stage like our idols. For one brief moment, we were kings.

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