the absent company

The set varies little over time. The minor changes made to accommodate this current script likely only matter to the director, who ordered them months ago. The lead actor, however, is now unavailable—checked out, no longer there—perhaps not even working in the business anymore. Suddenly the understudy arrives, unbidden, as if responding to a premonition. The understudy is a near doppelgänger. The resemblance to the lead is uncanny—all the members of the crew agree.

Whereas in previous scripts other major characters besides the lead have appeared, here there are only very minor ones. It’s unclear if this has been a budgetary decision. The director walks the set, noting the removal of some props and the addition of others. In particular a new stunning scenic backdrop stands out—vibrant in its colors and intricate in its horticultural detail. The director pauses to inspect the veins on the leaves of a painted plant. Stunning, the director murmurs.

The music director reviews the score, which changes seasonally. Though maintaining a basic familiar framework, the score remains in a state of flux. The music director is fastidious, constantly adding and subtracting songs, fiddling with the order, all done in a supreme effort to achieve the absolute perfect balance of musical accompaniment.

Now the director is perturbed. The understudy has grown belligerent. Refuses to follow stage directions. Wants to ad lib. But there is no room for flexibility in the script. Every line, every action has been carefully scripted. Each fits within the director’s vision. None can be bent or discarded. The understudy objects. The director stands fast. Will the show go on…

As the audience filters into the theater, the tension behind the curtain rises to a head. At last, displaying characteristic poise and intuition, the music director steps in with a suggestion. All speaking lines will be removed, leaving the emotional arc of the script to be formed through mere gesture accompanied by a meticulously arranged new and expanded score, which the music director just happened to have eked out over the past few days during the scraps of time between rehearsals, having somehow, unconsciously or not, anticipated that a potentially show-stopping dilemma of this colossal magnitude may have arisen.

And so the show goes on with actors mute, stretching their non-vocal dramatic talents to the limits. When it is over the theater resounds with applause. It is another triumph for the entire company, but most of all for the music director, who quietly acknowledges success with a slight nod to the director, and walks out into the cool moonless night, humming quietly the last bars heard before the curtain fell.

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