“Stay put and don’t piss off the duck.” That’s the last note Reg Barry gives his Puck before lowering him into a hole—in fact inhabited by a duck—for the start of his open-air production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream; but of course the director has other things to worry about as well. Hermia appears to survive on a diet of “breakfast cereal and amphetamines”; Titania wants Oberon to stop pinching her nipples. Reg tells her that the abuse is right for the scene, even as he wonders about the wisdom of giving himself a part, in his mid-forties, as one of the play’s young lovers. All that “simulated sex with undergraduates” looks risky.
Let’s call it nontraditional casting, this insertion of a “balding…PhD” into a college-aged show, and that goes for the Puck as well. The actor playing him is blind, and while Reg loves his own dramaturgical conceit, he nevertheless decides to dig the boy a foxhole. It’ll keep him from tapping around the performance space, bumping into the sets, and using his cane to beat out the lines. As for the duck, well, that’s an accident.
“An Actor Prepares” is the opening story in Donald Antrim’s first collection of short fiction, a gathering of seven tales presented in the order of their initial appearance in The New Yorker; this one dates back to 1999. His setting here is the kind of small college that’s all but vanished from American fiction, an amateurish ingrown place that recalls Pictures from an Institution on the one hand and Pnin on the other. I was happy to take a trip back there, and yet in Antrim’s hands its cozy idyll gets bent.
Reg is a descendant of Barry College’s founder, a dean at what remains a kind of family property, and he manages to cram every cliché and fear about college theater into one. He thinks of drama as a form of “dangerous play,” wants the kids to make it all as “ugly” as possible, and just before showtime works them into their parts by telling them that they will never “stop being depressed.” By the end his enchanted forest is chaos, an exquisite disorder in which the only restraint belongs to Antrim himself.
The blind boy, Martin Epps, can’t really act, and speaks his lines as if to a metronome: “I’ll. Put. A girdle. Round about the earth.” It doesn’t matter. There’s been so much rain in the days before the performance that his pit has filled with water, and “a vengeful mallard” has taken it for her pond. They drop him in anyway, and in the third act he slides down through the ooze and disappears, “cane and all,” beneath its surface; Reg is too busy with his Hermia and Helena to note whether or…
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