“Over here.” Mr. Jacobs’ voice called from the back row of the auditorium, the same area where she had been sitting earlier, hoping to read as she waited for her friends on the fencing team to arrive. “Everyone knows the story, right?” Mr. Jacobs’ voice an urgent whisper.
“Sure.” Two seats to Mr. Jacobs’ right, Double-J made no attempt to lower his voice. “Hamlet sees a ghost, ghost says hey, I’m your old man, and your uncle murdered me. But Hamlet, instead of going out and getting revenge, talks a bunch of nonsense for a couple hours.” The Bird, sitting four seats away, saw Double-J throw his right hand dramatically into the air. “To be, or not to be.”
Rex leaned forward in his seat, his head high above the seats. “Is it a good idea to talk about the play before we see it?”
Mr. Jacobs replied in what seemed to The Bird his Coach Dan voice, definitive and assured. “For this play, yes.”
“And it’s what they did, back in Shakespeare’s time.” Rune, sitting in the row in front of The Bird, had turned his greasy red head so that he could easily make eye contact with everyone. “Outside the theater, they’d post the plot of the play, so people could read it before it started. They called it the argument. Back then, they didn’t worry like we do about ruining the surprise. All they cared about was the performance.”
A dismissive snort spurt from Double-J’s upturned nose.
The Bird leaned forward, her chair squeaking loudly even under her slight weight, and asked Rune how he knew so much about Shakespeare.
Rune looked back, made eye contact with her. “I don’t, really.” He shifted in his seat again, so that he was again facing the stage. “We had to read ‘Romeo and Juliet’ last year in CP English, and everyone was all like, I’ll be glad when this is over.” An appreciative chuckle percolated among his friends as Rune waved his right hand dismissively over the greasy waves of his red hair. “But when I started reading it, I was like, cool. Took a while to get used to the language, the thees and thous and wherefores — what made a difference one day was when actors came in to play the roles, the way they said the words, it made a lot more sense then. We had to do an essay, and I got an A on it.” The Bird saw a contented smile on Rune’s face, as he gazed across the rows of empty seats at the stage. It was the most relaxed she had ever seen him. “Miss Guthrie, she gave me a copy of ‘Hamlet’ to read at the end of the year, for the summer. Had a lot of notes in it.” He smiled like he didn’t care what others might think of him. “Read it in a week. It was — awesome.”
The lights on the back wall flicked off, then on. “Oh!” Butch turned suddenly in his seat, concern wrapped on his round face like a failed illustration. “Is — something wrong?”
For a second, The Bird thought Butch was joking. Yet when he didn’t laugh along with everyone else, she realized that he was sincerely as worried as he looked.
“That’s just letting us know the show’s about to start.” Double-J could not hide the mockery in his voice. “You’ve been to a theater before, right?”
“N — no.” Butch quickly scanned through the faces in the back row, their mirth dissipating in his embarrassment like ice dumped on a green lawn during a summer afternoon. “Mu — my parents don’t let us go to — plays. They — they think — ”
“Reverend Goodman.” Double-J waved a dismissive hand in the dark. “Say no more.”
The Bird felt the slap of paper against her leg. “Sorry,” Annie called, quickly grabbing the program she had dropped. The Bird couldn’t remember the company giving out programs for dress rehearsals before — they must have prepared them just for the students. She looked down, read the program, if for no other reason than to recognize names of friends, or at least her mother’s friends, from earlier productions:
THE TRAGEDY OF HAMLET
by William Shakespeare
Hamlet, Prince of Denmark — DAVID MOSES
Claudius, King of Denmark, Hamlet’s uncle — HENRI FOUCAULT
The Ghost of the late king, Hamlet’s father — STEPHEN JACOBSON
Gertrude, the Queen, Hamlet’s mother, now wife of Claudius — JANET WERNICK
Polonius, councilor of State — WAYNE KASS
Laertes, Polonius’ son — E.J. HILDEBRANDT
Ophelia, Polonius’ daughter — SARA PHILIPS
Horatio, friend and confidant of Hamlet — NICHOLAS RATKIEWICZ
The lights on the back wall dimmed, along with the overhead lights in the theater. Music played softly through the loudspeakers as the stage lights dimmed, then faded as the stage brightened in dark blue light.
From either side, an actor walked onto the stage, their faces barely visible.
You come most carefully upon your hour. The Bird nodded — Mr. Erickson, an accountant in the city.
“What’s going on?” The Bird thought Butch sounded just as confused as when straining to understand an instruction given by Mr. Jacobs during fencing practice.
“Those are guards,” Mr. Jacobs explaining in a sharp whisper, “they’re at Els — a castle, in Denmark.”
“Oh!” The Bird saw Butch’s shoulders relax.
A third, fourth actor walked onto the stage, The Bird instantly recognizing the third as Mitch Saunders, who had played a role in a Moliere production her mother had been in that summer.
“What are they talking about?” Annie directed a harsh, quite shhhh at Butch, as Rune urged him to just keep watching.
A dramatic piano cord sounded over the loudspeakers, as another actor, dressed in armor with head uncovered, walked on from stage right.
“So that’s Hamlet?”
“No Butch, that’s the king.”
The sound of a rooster’s crowing blared over the speakers; the Ghost turned, left the stage, followed by the other actors. A moment later the stage exploded in light once more, revealing a crowd of actors. The Bird noticed her mother was off to the left side of the stage, her arm around the seated actor playing the role of Hamlet. The Bird remembered the last time her mother had played Gertrude — two summers ago, a Shakespeare festival in Canada — she’d had her arm around King Claudius at the start of that performance.
Mr. Jacobs leaned forward, in the direction of Butch. “That’s the King.”
After years of rehearsals and practices, The Bird knew Gertrude’s first lines by heart.
Good Hamlet, cast thy knighted color off,
And let thine eye look like a friend on Denmark.
“But I thought the king was dead.” Rune explained to Butch in a rushed whisper. “Oh!”
whose common theme is death of fathers
“I have no idea what’s going on.” Rex’s sarcastic outburst was not at all in character.
“I’m with Rex.” Annie’s voice was unusually petulant.
The Bird saw the short curls of Mr. Jacobs’ head shake back and forth. “Just keep asking questions.” He reached forward, patted the shoulder of the greasy-haired teen sitting directly in front of him. “Rune here seems to know this pretty well. Sandy — The Bird, I think she does too.” She nodded. “Just ask one of us.”
The stage lights came on again, The Bird recognizing Mr. Kass, playing the role of Polonius. He spoke in fatherly tones to the actors playing Laertes and Ophelia.
Neither a borrower nor a lender be,
For loan often loses both itself and friend,
“What a pretentious piece of shit.”
“I don’t know.” The Bird wondered if Rex was trying to start an argument with Double-J. “That guy sounds pretty reasonable.”
The stage fell into scene-changing darkness again. Rex continued his thought. “What did that guy say, about being true to yourself?”
“To thine own self be true.” To The Bird, it sounded like Rune wasn’t just repeating the line, but reciting it, performing.
“That’s a load of crap.” Double-J’s tone was as dark as the theater around them. “What if you’re an asshole? Still a good idea to be true to yourself?”
“Can you be quiet?” Annie sounded ready to raise the stakes in this game. “It’s hard enough to understand the language without you chirping all the time.”
“I wasn’t the one talking!”
“All right, settle down.” Mr. Jacobs waved a hand toward the stage, which began to glow again with light.
The actors playing Hamlet and Horatio walked onto the dimly lit stage, began reciting their lines.
Rex grunted. “They might as well be speaking Pig Latin.”
Double-J laughed. “Amlet-hay ucks-say.”
A dramatic flourish of horns sounded through the loudspeakers, as the actors playing Hamlet and Horatio drew back at the approach of the Ghost. Butch pointed at the stage — “Why’s the Ghost wearing armor?’
“Oh for crying out loud!”
“Guys, guys, just settle down — ”
Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder. Murder!
“And if he only listened the first time, this play wouldn’t take so damn long!”
I perchance hereafter shall think meet
To put an antic disposition on
“Arctic expedition?” The Bark Bay High School team engaged in a collective giggle, as Rune put a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “Antic disposition. Means he’s going to pretend to be crazy.”
The stage lights dimmed as the actors playing Hamlet and Horatio left the stage. The black burly figure of Double-J rose from his seat, began exiting the row. “Gotta wrestle with the champ.”
The stage lights came on again, The Bird seeing her mother with the King and two other actors she did not recognize.
Welcome, dear Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
“Friends of Hamlet.” Rune sounded comfortable, even pleased in his role as the team’s guide.
“They just agree to spy on Hamlet?” Out of the corner of her eye, The Bird saw Mr. Jacobs’ nod in response to Annie’s whispered question.
How pregnant sometimes his replies are!
“Why can’t Hamlet hear Polonius?”
“It’s an aside, Butch. He’s talking to the audience.”
You cannot, sir, take from me anything that I will not more willingly part – except my life.
“But aren’t they all talking to the audience?”
JUST WATCH, the Bark Bay High School fencing team responding in unison.
The back theater door to the right opened, light from the lobby splashing the back row of seats as Double-J walked in.
I know the good King and Queen have sent you.
SHHHH! Annie’s sharp whisper was even louder than Double-J’s catcall.
“Oh come ON! They can’t hear us from way back here, and it’s not like we’re bothering anyone. It’s as empty here as it will be opening night!”
The Bird said opening night was sold out, even though she had no idea whether that was true. She did know opening nights at this theater always sold out. Well, close enough, anyway.
“Can we just watch the damn play?” Rune’s complaint silenced his teammates.
What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god.
“There you go.” For the first time that evening, Double-J’s voice carried a tone of sincere appreciation.
“I don’t think he meant it.”
Mr. Jacobs’ pre-empted the giggling that rippled through his students. “What makes you say that, Butch?”
“Oh! Well, it was . . . the way Hamlet said it, I guess. It was like when a baseball player drops an easy fly ball, and someone in the crowd yells, ‘Nice catch!'”
“It’s called sarcasm.” The Bird could feel the smile in Double-J’s voice. “Some people, they can’t help themselves from being sarcastic.”
I know a hawk from a handsaw.
“Like who?” Not even Mr. Jacobs could refrain from diving into the pool of laughter.
Like John-a-dreams, unpregnant of my cause
“What the hell is he talking about?”
“Sorry Rex, this language’s too sophisticated for anyone who’s not at least 400 years old.”
The play’s the thing
Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.
The stage lights dimmed, as ominous music played over the speakers. In the darkness, stagehands hurried to prepare the next scene. The Bird saw Mr. Jacobs’ dark outline lean forward, offer a quick explanation before the lights rose for the next scene.
I hear him coming. Let’s withraw, my lord. The King and Polonious hid behind a curtain at the rear of the stage, as Hamlet walked in from the right.
“Oh gawd.” Double-J groaned like a sick man. “Here it comes!”
To be, or not to be —
“That is the question.” Rune’s finishing of the line generated a ripple of laughter through his teammates.
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune —
“Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them.” The laughter ended rapidly, like a wave losing its energy on sand.
To die —
“To sleep, no more.”
And by a sleep to say we end —
“The heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.”
“Jesus!” Double-J’s tone was more appreciative than mocking, but a quick motion from Mr. Jacobs’ arm silenced him.
‘Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.
“To die. To sleep — ”
To sleep — perchance to dream.
“Ay, there’s the rub.”
“For in that sleep of death what dreams may come, when we have shuffled off this mortal coil, must give us pause.”
The Bird realized she had been holding her breath.
Soft you now, the fair Ophelia!
“He’s up to something.”
“Yeah, well, he’s Hamlet after all.”
Annie seemed annoyed at Double-J’s reply. “No, I mean — ” she pointed toward the stage — “him and her.”
Get thee to a nunnery!
Mr. Jacobs laid a hand on Annie’s arm. “What’s wrong?”
Annie waved at the stage again. “It’s just — the way he’s treating her, that’s all.”
“Why’d he tell her to become a nun?” Mr. Jacobs leaned forward, whispered in Butch’s ear. “Oh!”
And I, of ladies most deject and wretched, that sucked the honey of his music vows —
Double-J roared with laughter, prompting a rebuke from Annie.
The scene ended, stage lights fading then glowing again to reveal the actors sitting to the side of a raised platform, Hamlet and Ophelia closest to the audience.
Lady, may I lay in your lap?
No, my lord.
I mean, my head upon your lap.
Ay, my lord.
Do you think I meant country matters?
“Hey Rune –” the teen looked back at Double-J — “you’re the scholar, right?”
“So, that line about country matters — where was the stress?”
Annie stood up suddenly, like a soldier coming to attention. “Can you knock it off over there?”
Double-J sunk back into a snicker, as Mr. Jacobs rose to intercept Annie.
The King rises!
“What’s wrong?” The Bird saw Rune lean over to his friend, whisper an explanation. “Oh! So everybody now knows the King killed Hamlet’s father?”
“No, only Hamlet knows what the Ghost told him.”
“So — why didn’t he tell anyone else?”
Horatio left Hamlet alone on stage, and several lines of dialog later his quick exit was followed by an ominous minor chord played by a cello. All lights in the theater went out, followed almost immediately by the overhead lights flooding the seating area.