4c4r4pt4: Deception of Surfaces
Henry walked into one of the two rooms in the Retreat he hadn’t seen before, the room at a right angle from the guest room Uma was staying in. It wasn’t that he had been prevented from going in, he just simply hadn’t gotten around to it. No, it was more than that, he realized as he took in the dark place and smelled the sweet mildewy odor of old carpets and damp bricks. He had been afraid of intruding on a sacred space uninvited.
“Let’s do this right and give you the full-on shrininess,” Barbara said, as she lit a match and walked around the room lighting a series of what seemed to Henry to be oil lamps, like the kind he had found in the basement of the farm in Glassboro, lamps with fluted glass chimneys which had probably been there when his Dad had bought the place. The shrine room began to glow in rich yellow-orange hues.
The floor was a patchwork of overlapping throw rugs and carpet remnants, used for any purpose from acoustic buffering to set-dressing in Retreat shows. To the right and left of the doorway were metal shelves crammed with props. One shelf seemed to be a history of the telephone, and included an old pedestal phone, some black rotary phones and cell phones going back to the nineties. Another shelf, marked “Weapons”, was piled with swords, rapiers, daggers, mallets, chucka-sticks, childish squirt guns, flint-lock rifles and menacing, realistic looking firearms. Jammed off to the slide of this shelf were a collection “slap-sticks”: the hand-held paddles with two pieces of wood which slapped together, used comically in the commedia dell’arte for the beating of zanni. Another shelf had a line of enclosed plastic boxes marked: “watches, rings and bracelets”, “medical, surgical and dental”, “baby stuff”, “office and desk-y crap”, “hair stuff.” Another shelf held a series of table settings, from the ornate to the functional. Two covered cardboard boxes shouted “Glass!!!! Careful!!!!”
On the other side of the doorway, the top half of the shelf unit was populated with an assortment of grotesque faces, flickering now in the lamp light. These were Barbara’s masks: fantastical caricatures in lacquered paper mache; eerie neutral masks, barely human, with only the slightest hint of expression; outrageous commedia masks in stiff, finished leather, from the obscene Arlecchino to the wizened Pantalone. Barbara finished lighting the lamps and turned to see them too.
“Hi guys,” she said casually.
“Did you make all of these?” Henry asked in a near whisper.
“The paper mache masks were made by the actors under my . . . guidance,” she replied, “I made the rest.”
“How long did it take you?”
“My whole life,” she answered, smiling.
The rest of the that shelf appeared to be a repository for items from that purgatory between costumes and props, the kind of items designers scream at each other about during tech, when something vital fails to appear and fingers start being pointed. These bottom two rows included an odd assortment of backpacks, wallets, briefcases, veils, eye-patches, monocles, crowns, scepters, racquets, balls, umbrellas, canes, helmets, gas masks, wigs and hat boxes.
The wall facing the alter, to the left as you enter the room, was covered in framed paintings, posters and prints – the kinds of things you might hang on your wall if you were Helmer from A Doll’s House, say, or Paulina from Death and The Maiden. Portraits of nineteenth century nobles overlapped with ornate pastoral landscapes in cheesy “gilded” frames. Film noir movie posters were invaded by an assortment of framed children’s drawings, by a younger Bella and Sandro Henry assumed. A large sign made the bizarre announcement: Elizabeth’s Canines. Another smaller sign read, in a cartoon font, Bertie’s Best Bread – It’s “Breadful!” As Henry moved further into the room towards the far wall, he realized that there were mirrors buried under the layers of faux art, and he caught fleeting glimpses of himself in the warm light of flame.
The wall facing the door was given over to books. As if a section of some ancient library had been cut away and placed in this room in the Retreat, this wall was covered wall to wall and floor to ceiling with hard-cover books, arranged on custom made shelves built into the brick. Henry had seen books like these in movies, but never actually held one in his hand. All his reading had been done off computer screens, paperbacks and copied pages.
“Can I touch one?” he asked Barbara.
He reached for a book in a blue cloth binding, with words embossed in gilt text on the binding: Methods of Anthracite Extraction, Wilson and O’Malley, Harcourt. To Henry, they seemed to be the words to an incantation. He opened the book and could dimly discern pages of research about mining, diagrams of mines, shafts and conveyer systems, math equations about God knows what. He was suddenly overcome with the knowledge that he was holding something that was once someone’s accomplishment, a book that referred to something brand new and modern then. He wondered at the journey this book had taken, from the imagination of its two authors, to the shelves of ancient book stores, to the offices of coal companies, and now in the 21st century, somehow, to this strange dark room in the commune-theater called the Retreat, where this book had likely been a part of performances as far removed from its subject matter as the book itself was from its origin. Henry flipped through the pages, and something fluttered to the floor. He put the book back and picked a small card off of the old oriental rug.
“Let’s see,” said Barbara. It was a tarot card an actor must have used as an impromptu bookmark. Or maybe it had been orphaned from its deck and found refuge in Wilson and O’Malley’s book during the mad shuffle of its journey. Or, thought Henry, maybe a previous owner of this book had had a reading done once, and kept this card for reasons of the heart.
“The Queen of Cups,” said Barbara, “very interesting.”
“What does it mean?” Henry asked.
“Let’s find out,” Barbara replied, and she pulled out her mobile.
“What you have to remember,” said Uma, “is that you are succeeding.”
Maya was on the floor now, pulling her knees to her chest, stretching. Bella was braiding Uma’s hair.
Bella listened as Uma listed all the things in their lives that were going right. And, as always, she and Sandro topped the list. She heard this so often from adults who spoke to her Mom and Dad, variations on how blessed they were to have “such amazing kids”. She felt conflicted about it: on the one hand, proud of being held up for praise, but also a little tired of being thought of as her parents’ accomplishment. And she wondered at her mother’s distress. Sure, they didn’t have a lot of money. But Bella knew there was such a thing as poverty, and she knew she had never known it. She knew in some way she was “poor”. But she knew she didn’t feel “poor”. What she felt was happy about her life, and anxious about the tension between her parents.
Her Mom was talking to Uma now about Italy. Bella had heard all the stories, seen the pictures and recently, sat in front of the computer as Maya had family video chats with Italian people Bella was related to, but unclear exactly how. Maya would translate in fractured Italian occasionally, but mostly one or two of the Italians would speak English better than her Mom spoke Italian, and they would do the translating. Bella found these v-chats awkward, but submitted to them because she knew how important they were to her mother.
Now her mother was talking about her father. The pace of Maya’s words slowed from the excited bubbles about Italy, to something altogether more syrupy and stuck. Uma would ask and Maya would wait, thinking, spinning her hair into small tails in the thoughtful gesture Bella knew so well. And she also knew her mother was choosing her words carefully because she, Bella, was there, hanging on each word for dear life. Bella was at once grateful to be taken into her mother’s confidence this way, but also bothered by the sense that this was a conversation she’d rather not hear.
“Of course I love him,” her mother said, “I’m just so tired of feeling disappointed.”
And Fatima sang, “The poor soul sat sighing by a sycamore tree, sing all a green willow. Her hand on her bosom, her head on her knee, sing willow, willow, willow. The fresh streams ran by her, and murmur’d her moans, sing willow, willow, willow. Her salt tears fell from her, and soften’d the stones – “ and she placed a sweatshirt Andy had found in the studio next to her on a small table she was sitting next to. “Lay by these,” she commanded gently. Alice turned from looking out the window and dutifully took the sweatshirt to the large Styrofoam block standing in for Desdemona’s bed. Fatima sang, “Sing willow, willow, willow – “ and she stopped again. “Prithee, hie thee; he’ll come anon.”
“Why does she stop singing there?” Andy asked. The young women looked at him.
“She hears Othello coming?” Fatima ventured. Andy looked thoughtful.
“I don’t think so,” he said. “I think it has to do with her.” And he pointed at Alice. “Do you really want to put out her nightgown like she’s asking you to?” he asked her.
“No,” Alice replied. “I want to get her the hell out of here. But I can’t. And it’s killing me.”
“That’s great,” said Andy, “let’s do that much again and let yourself get physically stuck in that dilemma, so that Desdemona has to remind you to do your job.”
The women re-set and began from the top of the scene. Alice repeated her thoughtful look out the window, but as opposed to “thoughtful looks” she had delivered in Gene’s class, looks that had garnered praise from the teacher, this look out the window felt anything but contrived. With every part of herself, she wanted to save her friend. The boundary between Fatima and Desdemona had become fluid, and Alice felt an urgency on stage she had never known.