Hammet Middle School
Teen drama is a complex tapestry. Life and death situations are screeched before a crowd, emotions ripped open and laid bare all for the adoration of spectators. But I wasn’t interested in any of that. I wanted the theater department where kids just acted stuff out on stage.
Betty Ann and I strutted into our school auditorium, which didn’t suck. A raised stage, thick velvet curtains and a complex system of lights, microphones and speakers stood before an army of wooden chairs bolted to the concrete floor. Behind the proscenium arch was an elaborate set that looked like a New York apartment from the 1960s.
“I thought they were doing Shakespeare,” I said to Betty Ann.
“Oh they are,” she told me. “But they gotta work around the existing set.”
“That makes sense?”
“The state budget’s been slashed into non-existence. There’s no money for drama, it has to pay for itself and there ain’t enough bake sales and car washes in the world to make that happen. So the school rents out the auditorium to community theaters. School drama has to work around whatever set they get. I think this is from the Odd Couple.”
“Oh,” I said, wondering if school administrators had to work out of other people’s offices. Probably not. The administration budget was never cut, only the curriculum.
On stage a young director worked with two actresses. He was a medium-sized guy with a broad moon face and wore a little hat like the guys from old 50’s movies. And a scarf. A scarf, I kid you not. He looked like he was down to his last nerve and that one was extremely frayed.
“Alright! Enough! Just forget it. Take five!”
The taller actress said, “But tis not yet the top of the hour, and I am still at thy service.”
“Five, Olive,” the director snapped.
The two girls exited on opposite sides of the stage. I notice Olive pulled a script from her back pocket and shoved her nose into it, studying hard.
The director pulled off his hat and slapped it dramatically against his thigh.
Betty Ann nudged me. “That’s Royalty Hal, the director. Big time drama geek. He knows all things theater. Come on, I’ll introduce you.” We walked down the aisle toward the stage.
Betty Ann called, “Hal. Hal!”
Royalty Hal whipped around. “Betty Ann!” He leapt off the stage and ran down the aisle falling to his knees before her. “Thank god.” He actually kissed her hand. “Please tell me you’re here to audition for the role of Beatrice.”
“You want me in the play?” Betty Ann asked.
“No, I don’t want you in the play. I need you in the play. Please, say you’ll audition.”
“I dunno,” Betty Ann said.
“Please, I’m begging you. This is me begging,” said Hal.
Betty Ann pasted her wide eyes on me and said, “What do you think Drex. Should we audition?”
It wasn’t the stupidest thing I’d ever heard. My Aunt Ruth sometimes listens to Fox News, but this was up there. “Um…” I said.
“Um…” Hal said.
“Come on. It’ll be fun,” Betty Ann said. “You could play Benedict.”
“Oh. Yeah,” Hal said. “Here’s the thing. Benedict is already cast.” He glanced at me and I felt the familiar unwelcome air again. “Olive is playing Benedict.”
“Isn’t Benedict a guy?” I asked.
“Oh yeah,” said Hal, matter of factly.
“Okaaaay,” I said.
“Drama never has enough guys. Girls play boys all the time. Come to think of it, I don’t’ think Olive has ever played a girl. But she’s a hard worker. She played the Beast in Beauty and the Beast last year. Ate nothing but raw meat for three weeks. She totally gets into her parts.”
“Why?” I asked.
“What else has she got?” Betty Ann said.
I looked at Olive, clutching her torn and tattered script like a lifeline. Fourteen years old and she spent most of her time as somebody else just to fit in somewhere. There was probably something profound in that.
“But I really need you Betty Ann,” Hal begged. “Please.”
Betty Ann fidgeted and bit her thumb the way she does when she really wants something, but she looked at me and waved him off. “Maybe,” she said. “We’re kinda working a case. Hal, I want you to meet Drexton Cage. Drexton, Royalty Hal.” She gestured to Hal then me.
He got off his knees and nodded, not looking me in the eye. “Then what in the name of all things Thespis are you doing here?”
“I wanted to talk to you about an actress,” I told Hal.
“Why?” Hal asked, still looking at Betty Ann. He folded into a nearby chair, kicking his feet up on the seat in front of him.
“I’m told you know all things drama.”
Hal puffed up a little at the compliment, and looked at me for the first time. “Perhaps.”
“I’m looking for a specific actress.” I sat beside him and described Carmen Hardstone. If a picture is worth a thousand words, I painted him a masterpiece.
“She’s a good actress you say?”
“Had me suckered.”
“Then she’s not from around here,” Hal said with stone dead confidence. “You sure she’s in the drama club?”
Betty Ann scooched around us and sat in the chair on the other side of Hal.
“No,” I said. “But she quoted lyrics from The Sound Of Music. Figured it was worth a shot.”
“You sure you don’t know her?” Betty Ann asked.
“Not at this school.” Hal shook his head sadly.
“Maybe another? I’m told you’re the man who knows.”
Detective rule 547J - a little flattery never hurts. It didn’t this time either. If Hal were a peacock, I’da been knocked over by the unfurling feathers.
“Maybe,” he said. “I meet a lot of other thespians. Conferences. Competitions. That kinda stuff. I’m pretty well known.”
“You da man,” Betty Ann assured him.
“She also has a tendency to say ‘glory’ a lot,” I said.
His face lit up. He smacked his forehead with the heel of his hand. I thought people just did that on T.V. Maybe he thought he was.
“Oh yeah. Her. Pensicola Jones. She’s a big time diva over at Hammet.”
Hammet Middle School, our biggest rival in everything from football to I.Q. Pentathalons. Another clue. Whoo-hoo.
“She good?” I asked.
“Best actress I’ve ever seen.”
“Pensicola Jones,” I said.
“Be my guess,” Hal said.
“Thanks,” I said. I stood and started back toward the doors.
“Wait,” Hal shouted, jumping to his feet. “You can’t leave. You gotta audition. Betty Ann, you’re a natural.”
She hesitated, then shook her head.
I thought there was a little sadness in that head-shake as we walked out the door.