Once, I almost played Hamlet.
Well, sort of. I’d been cast to play the Dane, but not in the Shakespeare. There is a very funny play by Lee Blessing, in which the entire cast of Hamlet appears, in a way that is different than what you might imagine. Fortinbras is the central character. The title character. Hamlet, who is already dead, spends most of the play trapped in a television set.
The audition was for a summer theatre company just starting up in Maine. The season included three plays, but this was the only one that had roles for me in it, and the commitment nestled perfectly between another job I’d already lined up for the summer and a planned trip to Sweden.
It was one of those nightmare auditions, where you are in the lobby waiting with dozens of actors for hours. Maybe five hours, and I am not joking about that. People were leaving, angry that they had taken off work for this. I stayed, since it was a good script, and the prospect of spending part of the summer in Maine was compelling. Also, because I knew they were a new theatre company, and I had been in that boat, and wanted to support them, and felt they should be forgiven for making some clumsy beginner mistakes.
The reason the audition was taking so long was pretty clear. They were asking people to stick around after doing their two contrasting monologues, to read scenes from the play. That should have happened at the callback, not the initial audition.
When I finally got in the room, I was reading for Fortinbras. There were several roles I could have played, but went for the comic lead, and chose to play him like Gene Wilder. They were laughing, so I felt confident I was doing well.
At the callback, the director asked me to read for Hamlet.
Hamlet? I hadn’t considered him. In this play, Hamlet is a romantic character. I don’t usually get cast in romantic roles. I usually get cast as the funny guy. Still, it’s Hamlet. Who could argue?
The call came while I was out on tour. The director had left a message, and so I was trying to return his call from the hotel room, to let him know that I would be thrilled to play dead Hamlet in Maine. This was before cell phones.
In a strange twist, the director was subletting from a friend of mine. Naturally, I knew his phone number. When I tried dialing, there was no answer. There was no ring. There was no outgoing message. There was just a click and a long pause, before the call would be cut off.
I tried several times. While I was holding the phone to my ear, trying to figure out if the problem was with the hotel phone (remember having to dial 9 for an outside line?) or with the answering machine at my friend’s place, I was singing along with the radio.
There was a station I loved at the time. They played American popular standards. Tin pan alley stuff. The DJ was Daisy Torme, Mel’s daughter. She had a good radio voice, and obviously, she knew her material well. How could she not? The song that was playing was by Jimmy Roselli.
“There must be a star in the skies, that doesn’t reflect in your eyes…”
A love song. Dialing the number again, and hearing nothing again, I kept singing along with Jimmy.
“There must be a song that doesn’t remind me of you. There must be a kiss that thrills me like yours used to do…”
What the hell is wrong with this phone? Or is it that the director is so incompetent he can’t work a simple answering machine? That would not be surprising, considering how sloppy the auditions were. The guy is clearly a dolt.
“I look for a way to be happy. Happy with somebody new. Oh, there must be a way, but I can’t find a waaaaaaay, without you…”
Carried away, singing all out. Into the phone.
Finally, after dialing one more time, the director picks up.
Turns out, he was standing right next to the phone the whole time, listening to the voice messages. Even though there was no outgoing message, the machine was recording! He didn’t know who was calling, since I had not said my name, and thought someone was serenading him! Why else would anyone call multiple times, singing a love song?
Well, we laughed about it, but I was mortified. (I am not a good singer.) I still don’t understand why on earth he did not pick up the phone sooner, if he was right there, and must have been expecting actors to return his calls.
With the job booked, I set about arranging airfare from New York to my first summer gig, from there to my second, and then off to Sweden. Normally, I would have driven to the theatre jobs, but there wasn’t enough time between the end of one and the start of the other, and Maine is not exactly a hop skip and a jump away.
Neither is Sweden. It was an expensive summer. I would probably be spending more on airfare than I would be making between the two jobs, but hey, at least I was working in beautiful places, escaping the heat of the big city.
(Actually, Sweden was surprisingly cold. It was midsummer, but even with the sun shining till ten o’clock at night, I was bundled up in borrowed winter clothes.)
The first red flag came with a call about how the theatre company was struggling to find housing for the actors. Hmmm. Had they really cast three shows, and rented a performance space, without first working out the details of where the actors would be sleeping?
The next red flag came with a call from the director. Not good news. He had been fired. I’d already booked my flight to Maine, and was looking forward to playing Hamlet. Now what? Was the show still on? Aside from that, the director was a nice guy, and I felt sorry for him.
The last call came when I was out of town, at my first gig. The producers had pulled the plug. The entire season had been canceled. The poor actors who were in the first show were already there, and I can only imagine what the experience must have been like for them.
When I told the theatre company I was working for about my change of plans, they asked me to stay on for their next show. They were one actor short, and needed someone to play a character who gets killed off after only one scene, and spends the rest of the play as a dead body. Trapped for part of the time in an armoire.
That was fine. It was better than fine. I had a blast in that show. As a party entertainer, I’d played living statues before, so this was not much different. I even thought of a clever bit for the intermission. The armoire doors were flung upon just before the blackout at the end of the first act. I stayed in there, even after the house lights came up. The audience would be staring intently at me, trying to see if I was breathing.
“Do you think that’s really him?”
“No. Don’t be silly. It’s a mannequin.”
It was hard not to laugh. I didn’t get to play dead Hamlet trapped in a tv, but I did get to play another dead guy trapped in the wardrobe, and that itself is pretty funny.