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An Improbable Fiction

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Geoffrey thinks he could make something of the Viola, flannel and all.

(“I thought you meant trust falls,” she’d hissed as the booklets were distributed. “I didn’t drive six hours to recite Shakespeare!” 

“Come on, Stevie, you’re a natural,” Mr. Rose said, in his voice that was meant to sound reassuring. “You were a triple threat in Cabaret.” 

“Yeah, a triple threat to anyone in front row vomit range,” she muttered.

“I heard you were a star,” said Ruth, and Stevie flushed red, grateful when the director began to speak.)  

No director in their right mind would ever cast her, her shoulders too tightly coiled to sell Viola’s coy swagger, hands fidgeting with her nametag, but then—Geoffrey Tennant, disgraced former artistic director of the New Burbage Shakespeare Festival, is not in his right mind. All the critics say so. 

Geoffrey takes stock of his victims. The Olivia (Ruth?) has beautiful crisp elocution, the kind you get from a lifetime of holding your own in all-male boardrooms. Then there’s some kind of singing accountant and two people Geoffrey mentally nicknames Genial Eyebrows and Anxiety Eyebrows. 

Well, he’s seen worse. 

In fact, the less said about the married couple currently giggling over the box-wood scene, the better. Geoffrey cuts them off before they can finish their story about the sculpture garden, the traveling improv festival, and the ornamental codpiece. But the Viola…Geoffrey takes measure of her sharp tongue, her jittery glances at the woman next to her, the raw expressiveness of her face, and thinks: it could work.

A jagged-edged Viola for a jagged-edged play. 

“All right,” he says. “We start with a shipwreck.” 

*

FOUR MONTHS AGO

“You can’t get much more family-owned than them,” says Anna in her theatre manager voice, the one that means business.  

After the decline of New Burbage into rank charlatanry of the jazz hands variety, Geoffrey would rather stage a revival of Moose Murders featuring real live moose (a la Darren) than go near a whiff of corporate sponsorship. But Anna insists they maintain a few carefully selected outreach programs; the new black box addition won’t pay for itself. So they compromise. Youth outreach and local partnerships only, absolutely no brands plastered across a marquee, and Geoffrey gets to pick the name. 

The grant requests go out the next week, accompanied by a modest press release: the Theatre Sans Argent is pleased to inaugurate its Family-Owned Independent Business Leadership Experience (FOIBLE) workshop program.

Geoffrey promptly forgets about it. He has Antony and Cleopatra to worry about, sullen high schoolers to coach, new plays to ferret out of the slush pile, rehearsals for Nahum’s God of Carnage—sometimes he misses the old days. Then he thinks about gift shops and ghosts and the narrow confines of an on-stage grave, and suddenly Montreal doesn’t seem so bad. 

When Anna hands him the information on the first workshop participants, it’s not until Ellen’s little shriek that he pays any attention. 

“Oh my god, Geoffrey. The Roses are coming here?” 

“What Roses? We’re not doing a Richard III for at least—”

“Not that, the real Roses. Johnny and Moira? A bit of a diva if you ask me,” it’s a testament to Ellen’s acting ability that she can say this with zero hint of irony, “but, whatever else I can say about her, she always works.”

“Still not ringing a bell.” Ellen wafts her hands over her head. 

“Wigs,” she intones.

“No,” says Geoffrey in dawning horror. “Oh, for fuck’s sake.”

“Yes,” says Ellen. “Lady Macbeth. The Crystal Skies cruise ship.” She leans closer, dragging out every syllable with a leading lady’s peerless flair for drama. “Shakespeare at Sea Week.”

Later, Geoffrey drafts a memo to Anna: Please acquire location where I can easily throw myself overboard in Montreal. Only requirement: no swans. 

*

TWO WEEKS AGO

“Alexis, what is the meaning of this histrionic hullaballoo?” Moira’s voice is tinny through the screen, as though she did not just make a grand entrance to the family video chat with black-and-gold Versace dressing gown, spangled backdrop, and glass of something glimmering. By their mother’s standards, David thinks, Alexis’s wringing hands and distracted chatter are practically stone-faced. In their living room, Patrick leans closer to the screen, squinting at the pixels.

“Is that—is that our guest room?” He throws an alarmed look at the ceiling, like he's instantly regretting their offer to host his in-laws. “Do you travel with a champagne flute, Mrs. Rose? And your own set design? That…does explain why you had so many bags.”

“A camera is a camera, darling Patrick,” Moira trills. “And one never knows when one may be in need of extemporaneous libations.” Patrick turns to look at Johnny, sitting on the couch next to them, who shrugs from somewhere deep within the font of infinite affection he has for his wife. David makes a mental note: lint roll glitter off guest room duvet after Mom leaves.

“Okay, ummm hi, can we get back to my crisis, please?”

David gets long strings of emoticon-filled texts from Alexis these days, bubbly and sparkling like his mother’s champagne, so he already knows Interflix is expanding into live theatrical screenings, that Alexis has been tagged to do PR for a new Canadian musical extravaganza.

“Surely it’s not the end of the world,” says Johnny helplessly. “A little makeup, or some of that fake fur, they should be able to disguise the cast—"

“She can’t fly in from the ruins on a harness if she broke her foot slipping in a pile of cat litter,” Alexis shrieks. “What kind of ‘live’ ‘production’ doesn’t have an understudy, anyway? Who are we going to find who can ‘learn her lines’ in two weeks?” She’s really upset. Her air quotes could kill a man.

“I wouldn’t put anything past a Darren Nichols production,” David whispers to Patrick, sidebar. “I saw his Julius Caesar. They set off a Roman candle every time Caesar got stabbed, and his ghost was made of this neon—”   

“Alexis,” Moira interrupts. “Alexis! Bestill yourself! I have the ideal solution to your dilemma. I have trod the boards myself a time or two, you know.” 

And, long story short, that’s how David finds out his mother was once the overstudy for the first Toronto run of Darren Nichols’ The Drowsy Chaperone

(“Overstudy?” “She always told us it meant she overstudied, so she didn’t take the role because she wanted to give an ingenue a chance to shine.”) 

“…It’s perfectly serendipitous,” Moira insists. “Your father is already going to Montreal for that little workshop to bolster the Rosebud camaraderie. I’ll discreetly tag along and enjoy the je ne sais quoi of the Quebecois whilst briefly revivifying my career on the Canadian stage.”

“Of course, sweetheart,” their father chimes in. “We can’t let all that publicity you worked so hard on go to waste,” and David watches Alexis glow like a Tiffany cluster ring before settling back into herself, flicking her wrists, sweeping her hair back into its perfect waves. 

This is her planning mode. David has seen it all his life, in Singaporean embassies and Schitt’s Creek escape rooms and Upper East Side social clubs that he knows, now, have always been too small to contain his little sister. He thinks, the new David thinks: When was the last time we were all in Canada? 

“Okay,” he finds himself telling Patrick when they’re alone in the living room, plans made and Alexis’ excited squeals faded and Dad gone to call the hotel. “My mother as part of a live musical event? We are not going to miss this.” 

David does a little shimmy of excitement. “Twyla can watch the store for the weekend—I mean, her second cousins are all the shoplifters in town, and she’s the only one who can tell them apart—and we could stop in and see your parents on the way there, and we could make it, like, a fun couples weekend? Doesn’t Montreal have a baseball team?”

“It’s a sore subject,” says Patrick, with a grim expression. 

David lays his trump card on the table.

“I will bring you a bagel in bed every single morning.”

“I feel like that means I’m going to end up buying you bagels when you forget your wallet in the hotel room again,” but Patrick’s voice is fond, and the edges of his eyes are crinkling in a smile, and David finds that their kiss goes on until his mother, still in their upstairs guest room, starts practicing her scales.

*

NOW 

Hell. Stevie is in hell. Iambic whatever-meter hell. 

It’s not that Roland won’t stop sniggering over the concept of cross-gartering, or that Mr. Rose keeps politely interrupting the stage directions, or that she has to muddle her way through phrases like “loyal cantons of contemned love.” 

It’s that she has to perform said phrases directed at Ruth, when it’s hard enough to look at her perfect blazers and perfect composure without aiming spectacularly embarrassing lines at her like “What I am, and what I would, are as secret as maidenhead.” 

It’s that after months of touring new Rosebud Motels, of bad drive-thru food and rolling down the windows to sing to the Alanis Morrisette CD that sticks in Stevie’s car stereo, she’s made the colossal mistake of getting to know Ruth. Which side of the hotel room she prefers (right), her favorite genre of movies (film noir), her strongest opinions (Dunkin Donuts over Tim Hortons—also her wrongest opinion, if you ask Stevie), whether she has animal slippers (yes: cats).

What her hand feels like touching Stevie’s on the dashboard on their way to Montreal—an incidental touch, like a question asked and left open.

Stevie is just too much of a coward to answer it.

“Did you really want to be a theatre minor?” Stevie asks her instead during lunch break, which is a break in name only. Geoffrey has paired them up to run lines over room temperature sandwiches, stating blithely that nothing brings people closer together than the working conditions of non-equity actors. 

“Yes,” Ruth says. “But I hated all the backstabbing and cliquishness, so I went to business school instead.” Stevie snorts. 

“It explains why you’re so good at reading this stuff.” 

“Oh please. I read all about your Sally Bowles. Did you know the Elmdale Loon called you a remarkable discovery?” A little smile dances on Ruth’s lips. “Not that I was surprised after meeting you.”

“You mean once you heard our pitch.” 

“Of course,” replies Ruth, with another enigmatic smile, and Stevie promptly knocks three sandwiches off the platter.

Are you going to be OK tomorrow? Patrick texts her later. You look really pale. 

not everyone can look like your sunkissed engagement photos, she sends back.

I regret asking after your wellbeing, Cesario. 

if orsino cared about my “wellbeing” (eggplant emoji) this play would b 700 lines shorter 

But then we would’ve missed out on Jocelyn’s rant about SparkNotes. And you wouldn’t get to hang out w/Ruth

excuse me?

Building your team ;)

why are you even here 

As the exclusive supplier of the Rosebud Motel franchise. And your friend 

what if I fired you? alexis keeps calling me a hashtag girl boss 

Then you’d have to deal with David ALL BY YOURSELF.

never leave me patrick

*

“Ellen darling,” gushes Moira. The wig is a pale turquoise and the outfit involves a neck ruff, presumably in Ellen’s honour. “It’s so good to catch up with someone who understands the travails of being a leading lady.”

“Especially,” because Ellen is petty and can’t help herself, “in a Darren Nichols production, right? Is he doing horses or fire or flaming horses this time around? Sorry, I’m sorry. But remember, I almost suffered his Hamlet.” 

They’re in the theatre bar. Just because it’s a Theatre Sans Argent doesn’t mean it’s a Theatre Sans Bière. Never mind that the bar is basically three kegs in a coat closet and all the whiskey Maria stole from the New Burbage donor gifts. 

“Oh, no dear, I won’t gainsay Darren’s vision. From the first zdravo we exchanged I felt like I was right back in Eastern Europe. I am perfectly accustomed to working with live animals, as you know.”  

“So if Darren’s not the problem…”

“It’s that ghastly Richard!” Moira explodes. “I’ve never met a more odious man, and my husband works with Roland Schitt. He insinuated that my role was simply to commercialize this production for the Hollywood press and preserve their lucrative contract with Interflix. He doesn’t want me to probe the significance of Grizabella’s fall from glory as a metaphor for the postbellum American South. Imagine—taking notes from a man without a shred of theâtrical derring-do!”

“I don’t have to imagine. You weren’t here for the mechanical sheep.” 

They clink glasses. Then they clink an awful lot of glasses.

“—Richard Smith-Jones is an arrogant, backstabbing…soufflé in a cheap suit,” Ellen sloshes. “And I worked with Oliver Welles. At least Oliver didn’t set those fucking bleats to music.”

Moira wafts her hand through the air, as if clearing the stage for a proclamation. A passing apprentice ducks for cover. 

“My sister would love him,” Moira declares at last, the worst insult she can deploy, and knocks back her drink in one shot. 

*

“I know you can do this,” says Geoffrey, and Stevie thinks: he really is certifiably insane. “Try again.” 

“I—this scene feels all wrong,” Stevie says. Patrick doesn’t seem to be having any trouble on his side. He just stares at David when he needs to do the soppy parts. “It’s too…sad. Viola is pouring out her whole life to Orsino and he’s being a mopey, sexist asshole about how women can’t love as well as men. I don’t know how to play that and be funny at the same time. It just seems cruel.”

“Maybe it’s not supposed to be funny. Comedy means there’s a wedding at the end—how you get there is up to you. You’re perfectly right,” Geoffrey adds, addressing the whole room now. “This play is a handful of broken glass, and our job is to pick up the pieces. There are no rules about how we put them back together.” 

“I’m not very good at metaphor.” Geoffrey crouches in front of her. 

“Viola is adrift,” he says softly. “The person who understands her the most in this world has been ripped away. Now, she’s trying to tell someone she loves him—without telling him—and Orsino is consumed by his own melancholy: But mine is all as hungry as the sea, / and can digest as much. He’s looking right past her,” Geoffrey’s eyes are intent. “At something else he wants. And Viola is dying of it.”

Stevie thinks: a run-down motel room, New York, roommates.

“Okay.” She swallows hard, but Geoffrey isn’t finished yet. 

“Viola can’t help but hint at her feelings to Orsino. He gets to make a whole song-and-dance out of his loneliness, but she has to hide hers? She has been bottling up her grief and her adoration and it all comes out here: She sat like patience on a monument / smiling at her grief. Was this not love indeed?

Stevie thinks: I wish I wasn’t watching it all happen from behind the desk.

The problem, she realizes with nascent horror, is not that she doesn’t understand Shakespeare. 

“Try it again,” Geoffrey commands, and the room falls away.

*

When Viola comes to find him after Saturday’s workshop, when the rest of the team has been dismissed to the bar, Geoffrey isn’t surprised. Crises of faith, crises of sexuality, crises of crises—it’s more unusual not to have something going on behind the scenes, in his world.

“Mr. Tennant?” 

“Geoffrey, please.”

“I wanted to say thank you,” she says awkwardly. “This play isn’t as bad as I thought at first. Confusing, but...” Geoffrey laughs. 

“An excellent word to describe Twelfth Night. Many an actress before you has foundered upon its unusually fluid shores.”

“Oh, I’m not an actress. I'm a front desk - I'm a hotelier. Businesswoman.” 

“Do you feel that your team is being sufficiently built?”

“Er.” Stevie watches him collect notebooks and texts. “This might be a kind of personal question, and you totally don’t have to answer it, but did you ever have to act opposite someone you—um, someone whose character—”

“Yes,” Geoffrey says, taking pity on her. “Two someones in my life, in fact.”

“How did that go?”

“Oh, I stabbed one of them with a rapier. I married the other.” Geoffrey hoists the box of plays into his arms and turns toward the door. “That’s usually your choice of things, in Shakespeare and in life. Tragedy or comedy.”

“And then what?” 

“An amiable separation. And a lifelong relationship formed of the bitterly woven cloth of rivalry.”

“Which one’s supposed to be the tragedy and which one’s the comedy?” 

“Who’s to say?” Geoffrey nudges the door open. “Come on, you look like you could use a drink. I’ll introduce you to our stage manager, Maria. I think you two will get along like a horse on fire.”

*

“Hi,” Stevie says when she shows up at the Rose-Brewer suite later that evening. “So I have something for you.” 

“Ooh, presents,” and David opens the door on auto-pilot, as she knew he would, but as she nudges across the threshold she hears suspicion enter his tone. “This isn’t an early birthday present, right? I expect glitz and glamour on the day of my birth.” 

“You’ll be getting glamorous mozzarella sticks on the day of your birth,” Stevie says, because why break with tradition.

“We’ll circle back to this at a later time. What’s up?”

“I had the sudden urge to have a drink,” says Stevie, and takes a deep breath. “But what I realized I wanted…was a drink of white wine.” 

“So Patrick has a strict mini-bar veto—” 

“David!” She sees when it hits him, because David goes completely still.

“Oh,” he breathes, and his hands flutter between them, as if his first impulse is to grab her and hug her tight. “Well then. That is information I am honored to have about you.” Then he does reach for her, a embrace full of such obvious delight it sings through her, crown to toes, like the shimmering thread of joy in David’s voice is pulling her spine taller. 

“Okay,” she mutters into his shoulder. “Okay. Um, you know I didn’t bring any actual wine, right?”

“Rude. But I may have already gotten snackish and opened the mini-bar, so at least this way Patrick will blame you. Pretzels or M&Ms?” 

Later, Stevie’s picking apart the M&Ms bag with compulsive fingers, and the concern hasn’t quite faded from David’s eyes.

“You’re not upset, are you?” he asks her finally. “I mean, between us and Ronnie and her florist and whatever’s going on with Twyla and my sister, which, ew, Schitt’s Creek is practically a sommelier’s paradise.”

“I’m not upset.” She scrabbles for the words. It is too hard a knot for me to untie floats into her head unbidden. “It just feels. It just feels like one more thing where I’m the last person to get there.”

“This of all things is not a race, Stevie Budd.” David takes her hands. “No one is leaving you behind. You are not behind.”

Until her dying day, Stevie will deny her sob.

“Now,” David says when that’s all finished with, business-like again. “I do have to ask as your best friend if there’s a specific label involved with this wine.” 

“Excuse me?”

“Like maybe a 1998 Sauvignon, or a 2005 Riesling…or a 2019 Clancy?”

“Oh my god,” Stevie says, and throws a bag of peanuts at him.

*

Geoffrey doesn’t have any deep textual readings for her this time. 

“Use it,” he murmurs, reading her face. He taps her gently on the shoulder. “Act 1, Scene 5. Olivia’s manor.” 

Here’s the thing: Stevie has always thought of herself as a sidelong glance of a person. Unnamed side character #2 waiting in the wings. That’s how she looks at women; that’s how she’s always looked at anything she wanted and, until she met the Roses, couldn’t peel herself out of the background long enough to deserve. But here there is only the text, in a shitty conference room in Montreal, and Stevie is the one in the spotlight now. 

She is blocked to face an imaginary audience. She turns to Ruth instead.

“Why,” says Ruth, throaty and eager, Stevie’s cue. “What would you?”

It’s not just Olivia’s question to Viola.

“I would make me a willow cabin at your gate,” Stevie rasps, “and call upon my soul within the house—write loyal cantons of contemned love—" and before she gets three lines in she can see David clutch for Patrick’s hand beneath the conference room table, his other hand clapped to his mouth.

She ends the speech holding Ruth’s hand, like the playful young courtier Viola is playing at; like someone who takes risks. 

“Very good,” says Geoffrey quietly, when she finishes. He is smiling. 

It’s David who stands to start the round of applause, but it is Ruth who stays on her feet the longest, eyes shining, applauding with Stevie’s fingers still in hers. 

*

The rest of the team leaves them alone after the workshop, either with knowing looks (Jocelyn and Patrick) or because David shepherds them forcefully away with loud talk of dinner (Mr. Rose and Roland), texting furiously to someone who is, presumably, Alexis.

“I got you flowers,” Ruth says suddenly, when they’ve been staring at each other in the coat room for way longer than is socially acceptable, and thank fucking god one of them is straightforward. She digs a slightly squashed trio of violets out of her briefcase, because of course Ruth brought a briefcase to a relaxing weekend of team bonding. “There weren’t many options at the last minute.” 

“You really didn’t have to do that.” 

“It’s the rules of theatre. At least for your show’s star.” Stevie reaches out to take them, to open up the tiny card tied to their stems. 

The card reads: I like your offices too.

Stevie can’t help it. She cracks up, wheezy and alarming, a kind of laugh she hasn’t heard herself make in a long while.

You make me feel like I did when I wore a tie for the first time, she thinks, but what she says is, 

“I heard there’s this new musical playing down the road. And I also seem to remember that you, Ms. Clancy, are a fan of free popcorn.”

“Ooh, now that’s a pitch I can’t refuse.” Ruth winds her arm through Stevie’s so easily Stevie hardly notices it happening. “It’s a date.”

*

“Is—is that a typo?” 

They’re standing in the Place des Artes, Patrick squinting at the playbill as though moving it in and out of the light will change the show’s tagline.

CATS: AN AMERICAN GOTHIC, it reads. 

In slightly smaller font: FULL OF SOUND AND FURRY. 

“I don’t think so.” David grimaces. “Do you think they have soft pretzels at concessions? I’m going to need comfort food to get through this.”

“Is that Mrs. Rose in a ballgown made out of cat bells?”

“Oh, the director was inspired by the Southern Belle,” Alexis shares brightly. “Wait until you see Act 2. Darren says it’s a Folk—a Folklorian portrait of the animalistic decay of the—something about balloons.”

“‘Faulknerian portrait of the antebellum,’” Ruth reads off the back of the Playbill, Alexis nodding along as if any of them knows what the hell that's supposed to mean. “It definitely sounds like it's going to be interesting." Her hand is warm at the small of Stevie's back. "Well? After you, Ms. Budd. You’re the brave one.”

*

Darren Nichols leaves the stage high on the wings of success, humming A Rose for Emily Mistoffelees.

When he accepted Moira Rose’s offer to stand-in for their fallen feline, the critics had bombarded him. Absolutely murdered him. But Darren knew, he knew, that the American soap opera was the one media form that perfectly captured the postmodern absurdity of his neo-Gothic vision—a dizzying carousel of rotating characters, grand families hurtling into decline, episodes of literal possession by ghosts…

Moira’s a godsend. He’ll send her a bottle of champagne and he'll actually mean it. 

The sarcastic claps from the stage door stop him in his tracks. 

“You don’t have to skulk in the shadows, Geoffrey,” he calls. “I’m the one who sent you the tickets, once I knew we were coming to Montreal.”

“Because you knew I’d never drop a dime on this hack of a spectacle.” 

“Because I knew you were broke. The title of your company announces it. How’s that going for you?” 

“Oh, it goes. I’m thinking of doing Twelfth Night next." Damn him. Darren has a soft spot for Twelfth Night—he always has, since his awakening in Berlin—or since before Berlin, if he's being truly honest with himself (something he rarely is). Since he and Geoffrey were at university together. 

“The idea of Geoffrey Tennant even beginning to grasp the subtleties of that play’s subversive take on gender performativity and queer eroticism? Now that’s a farce.”

“I didn’t think you knew the word subtlety.” Geoffrey shrugs. “You never seemed to have a problem with my take on eroticism before.” 

Darren whams his toe into an empty litterbox.

“Why are you here, Geoffrey? To mock me? You make a poor Fool.” 

“We have some mutual friends. By any other name, they’d smell as sweet. Didn’t Moira mention her family was in town?”

“And you accompanied them to my little revue? How touching. Don’t let me hold you up on your way to the reunion.”

“‘Will you stay no longer?’" Geoffrey says, and that’s so fucking unfair Darren wishes he had a prop sword at hand. 

"Don't you dare quote Antonio at me. That's—as if you were the one who was on the outside all those—go home, Geoffrey. Go back to Ellen." 

“Ellen’s drinking with an American soap opera queen and talking shit about you.” Geoffrey takes one step up onto the stairs. "Why are you putting on this production?” he asks. “No understudies. Backed by a streaming service. You’re going to get sued for copyright from here to Vancouver when Andy’s lawyers get ahold of this Gone with the Windbag. And your vision is all decay and decline and irrecoverable memories? Face it, Darren. You’re going off the rails.”

“Without you to keep me in check, I suppose,” Darren snaps back nastily, and regrets it. Geoffrey’s smile is odd in the gloom.

“I hate you too,” Geoffrey says. “See you in the bar. I have a few notes.”