When unemployed actor Rex Pembroke couldn't land a good role, he wrote one. To spare himself the burden of writing everyone else's part as well, he hired a group of actors and told them to say whatever they wanted to, as long as it fit with his lines.
I never should have taken him up on the idea, but I was a hand model whose 40-year-old skin was rapidly aging me out of a living. Before this, I'd been in a lot of strange productions: the all-nude "Pirates of Penzance"; and the backwards "Romeo & Juliet," beginning with two corpses rising from the ground and ending with the young lovers never having met.
But none was as odd as Rex's nightly travesty, a perpetually renewing Mary Sue story, starring young Rex, a man much like the semi-playwright, an out-of-work actor looking for love and fame. Some nights, it was Rex's romance, while some nights it was Rex's romp or Rex's mystery. No matter what, though, we other actors stepped wide of his lines, and no matter what craziness ensued, our Rexy ended each evening with the money, the acclaim and the girl (and some nights, with the pig or the policeman, too).
To be fair, Rex had given himself very generic lines, for the most part. It was never too difficult to figure out a way to work in a line like, "She was more surprised than you would believe," or "What do you mean?" But many nights we tried fruitlessly to lead into lines like "It's not just a hoagie; it's a primo."
In response to complaints, Rex would just shrug and remind his company that working around his lines was in their contracts, and that he'd be only too happy to fire us if we didn't play along. The parade of actors who had called his bluff and been shown the door was nearly as long as the line to get into the theater (for oddly enough, this nightly egotistical exercise had become quite the craze). Rex thought the crowds high flattery, but I noticed that his "fans" had taken on a "Rocky Horror" quality, with some of them dressing like him, in his nebbishy sweater and khakis, and a nightly theater full of giddy youngsters calling out his lines in unison each night.
Then one night, Rex showed up wearing a rusty-brown velvet top hat with big copper goggles strapped onto the hatband. He stood in the wings, whistling a Scott Joplin tune, as the pianist played his version of an entr'acte.
"It's almost time for our entrance," I reminded Rex. "Are you going to remove that hat?"
Rocking back on his heels and then up to his tip-toes, Rex countered: "I think not."
I was about to ask him if he was feeling OK when the brocaded curtain opened on an audience full of similarly attired folks: all in Victorian clothing with odd added touches, like a studded leather vest or a collar wrapped in wire.
Right in the middle of the stage, as if it belonged there, sat a giant prop that looked like a rocket designed by Leonardo Da Vinci and constructed by a Byzantine welder.
Stopping to gaze in admiration at the device, another member of the company, who I suddenly realized was dressed like a robot, intoned, "Idle hands make idol work." He flashed a mechanical smile. His real name was Steve, a brilliant young actor fresh out of college. Despite his sunny leading-man good looks, each night he happily threw himself into the most thankless roles.
At the word "idol," another company member, a 30-something redhead named Sylvia, bowed down and began worshipping the machine. "Oh, great and powerful God-bot, what sort of tattoo should I get on my upper arm? It's not filigreed enough."
Robot Steve whirled a few dials on the machine and replied, "The God-bot says you should get a bouquet of black roses in a vase shaped like a clock. You could never regret that decision."
With that, Rex seized the opportunity to deliver his first customary line -- clearing his throat first to alert his fans -- "I can help with that." He threw his arms wide to applause as the audience recited his line with him. Then he rooted around on an imaginary table, producing an invisible device he held as if it was extremely large. Sylvia's eyes widened in mock fear, but she held out her arm for him to decorate.
On her other side, I comforted her by holding her hand and telling her to think about her favorite place. "I'd say a prayer for you," I offered, "but I'm not allowed to do that anymore, now that they've kicked me out of the ministry of the Holy Church of St. H.G. Wells. I'm only allowed to mumble lines from Shakespeare."
As Sylvia winced at the growing tattoo (which, though invisible, we all agreed was stunning), I began reciting the "Friends, Romans, countrymen" speech from "Julius Caesar." It took me several false starts to get it half right. I explained that I was allowed to recite Shakespeare as long as I did it badly.
Sylvia's pained exclamations were soon augmented and exceeded by Rex, who had begun singing an aria, declaring -- aided and abetted by the audience -- "I like to sing while I work."
"Dude, that's beautiful," Steve declared. His strangely colloquial diction shocked me into looking at him, and I saw he was no longer dressed as a robot but looked more like a frat guy, in a college sweatshirt and baseball cap. "Did I ever tell you that you are so talented? And that you're my best friend? I love you, man."
Rex eyed him strangely, and instead of uttering his next line, which would have been, appropriately enough, "Thank you, man," he laid down his imaginary tattoo needle and faced the audience.
With an air of grandeur, Rex spoke: "I hope you have enjoyed the delicious theatrical cake we have baked for you this evening. Though you're as cramped in here as you'd be in a Tokyo apartment, I'm gratified by this incredible crowd." His fans began to applaud, but he held up a hand to silence them and continued. "You could have been outside, feeding the birds, or sitting in a stuffy lecture class at State U. But instead, you are here to witness this, my final acting triumph."
He pulled his goggles down over his eyes and then ducked into the strange device. Though it seemed scarcely bigger than a child's toy, his slight body fit easily. With one final wave out the door, he started the engines, and the device hummed and whirred. As it lifted up off the floor, I was stunned to see a hatch in the theater roof open, and the fantastic rocket shot off into space. Underneath the sound of the rocket's boosters, I thought I heard Rex's parting words, which sounded every bit like, "The gostak distims the doshes."
The rest of us players, with nothing better to do, took bows to the thunderous applause of the audience, who out of nostalgia stayed and delivered the rest of Rex's lines.
I have no answers for the reporters who keep calling me. Was Rex an eccentric inventor or an alien who infiltrated our culture? Was our play an experiment, designed to test human responses to carefully-selected stimuli? Did Rex realize that, if you feed people the most banal statements possible, they'll build their own worlds on top of your vagaries?
Perhaps. Or maybe all of us -- me, you, Rexy's crew, and the next-door neighbors -- are just players in a baffling production, written and produced by a celestial bubble boy for his own entertainment. To quote Shakespeare, badly, we're all players strutting and fretting our hour upon the stage, right?
Whatever the truth, I think I'm OK with it. Except that once more, I'm out of a job.
Thanks to all the people who gave me suggestions to incorporate into my one-person improv piece: tanyareed, slammerkinbabe, kathrynrose, roina_arwen, lrig_rorrim, eternal_ot, ellakite and gratefuladdict. I printed your suggestions out, cut them into slips and drew them from a bag as I was writing. If I didn't use your suggestion, I'm sorry, but since they were so good I might actually draw from those ideas in the future!
ETA: kfp_rawr's Home Game entry is now up, including a dinosaur song, more Thomas trains and a link to a video contest we're in for a chance to go to LEGOLAND. Check it out, because voting in that contest can earn you a chance to win DUPLO!