The Actress

She’s the professional in a community theatre in Tel Aviv but is her talent worth her behaviour?

An Amusement

She hurled the chair at him and it came crashing down on the stage, breaking a leg and one of its back ribs.
“How dare you!” she hissed. “How dare you compare me to a rank amateur? I am a professional actor, a graduate of RADA. I performed in repertory all over England. For the last twen-ty-five years (with heavy stress on the number of years), since I married and came – no – agreeeeed to come to Israel, I have given my time and talent to this third rate community theatre, where I have to put up with the likes of you. How dare you suggest I imitate someone who cannot dredge up a character to save her soul! You – you’re an idiot! A gargantuan idiot! Where did you learn directing, huh? Let’s get one thing straight right here and now. Mr. Alan Har-Paz. I know more about the theatre than you will learn in five lifetimes. So let’s get on with it, darling, and spare me your advice.”
His heart was pounding. The chair had barely missed him and for a moment, he had been shaken. It was not a heavy chair but she was a big woman and it could have done serious damage. As her diatribe continued, he decided he had had enough. He had been warned – not that he’d needed warning – for he had acted with her before and seen her destroy the confidence of at least three competent directors. Although she was attractive and had good stage presence, it simply wasn’t worth a threat to life and limb!
“That’s it, Fiona, you’re out.”
The other actors gave a collective gasp. Never had this happened before. With an apprehensive look toward the hyperventilating Fiona, they moved to the wings and waited for the explosion. Suddenly, she took one long, deep breath that had the actors ready to flee.
She smiled. It was an attractive smile, at once cajoling and playful.
“You don’t really want me to leave, do you?” she said. “Just because I don’t like to imitate another actress?”
“I didn’t ask you to imitate anybody,” said Alan. “I told you I was looking for her type of character, to give you something on which to hang your performance.”
“Oh. So sorry.”
“What if you didn’t fulfil your ambition to be a great professional actress? You’ve no right to express your frustrations here and upset the other members of the cast.”
She turned contritely to the others, both on her right and on her left.
“Did I upset you, lambs? I’m terribly sorry. I promise it won’t happen again.”
“It’s too late, Fiona,” he said. “You’re too disruptive. It’s happened once too often.”
“Can’t we discuss this privately, darling?” said Fiona and walked regally off the stage, not waiting to see whether he followed. She led the way into the empty green room.
“I’ve apologised,” she said as soon as he shut the door behind him. “What more do you want of me, Alan?”
“I can’t trust you, Fiona. And I can’t let you weaken the confidence of the cast. They stand in awe of you. You make them feel they can’t compete. And that doesn’t make for a unified group.”
“I see.”
She looked down at the floor for a moment. When her eyes met his again, tears brimmed in them.
“Please don’t do this,” she said. “I assure you I will cooperate. You know, ever since my husband deserted me, what else have I left? I have nothing but acting. Don’t take it away from me.”
“I don’t know, Fiona. You use this line with every director. All have regretted keeping you on. Why should it be different this time?”
“Because I’m scared. I’m on the wrong side of 50 – hell, I’m 56 – and acting is all I want to do. I’ll behave. I promise.”
Would she? Alan knew she revelled in the adulation and, yes, even in the fear she inspired in the other members of the group. No one dared criticize her and she often took to hamming, assuming posed positions on the stage and saying her important lines to the faces out front across the false wall. She waited for applause and her audiences dutifully obliged. He knew a real actress lay within her, and he had hoped to drag a performance out of her.
Today, he had reached the point of raising his hands in despair when she capitulated. Maybe now he could succeed. He had the leverage he’d been seeking and, by God, he would use it.
“Okay,” he said laconically, opened the door and went back to the auditorium. She followed him and took her place centre-stage.
“Let’s get back to the confrontation scene,” he said and turned to a girl in the wings. “Let’s try it again, Mira.”
The blonde ingénue was a pretty twenty-four-year-old whose father, a government official, had lately returned from a position in the Israel Embassy in New York. Schooled in America, she spoke fluent English. She came forward diffidently.
“Don’t worry,” said Alan. “No one’s going to bite you. Fiona promised to be good from now on.”
He threw Fiona a warning glance.
Mira took another step forward. Her wide blue eyes suggested she was uncertain. Fiona smiled at her, gently waved a floating hand and said, “Darling, come here. Come on! Don’t be afraid. That’s it. Now, remember, I’m your mother – so don’t you scream at me. Let me do the screaming.”
“Perhaps,” he interposed, “you will let the director do the directing?”
“But, of course, sweetheart, of course.” She was beguiling. “I simply wanted to help her understand the situation.”
“Of course, my love, of course,” he replied. “Not for a moment did I doubt your intentions. But, Mira,” he turned to the ingénue, “play it as I told you.”
Fiona’s eyes flashed. For a moment, it seemed another explosion was imminent. However, she demonstrated vast self-control.
“He is right, you know. Even though I am the professional, you must always listen to the director, however incompetent and amateurish he may be. Oh, I’m not saying you are,” she continued when she observed him react, “I am just stating the unwritten law. Isn’t that so?”
“Quite,” he said. “Now let’s get on with it.”
At the next rehearsal a couple of days later, Mira approached him.
“Er… excuse me, Mr. Har-Paz. My boyfriend has just arrived from New York. May he… do you think… it would be all right if… if he sits in during rehearsals? He’s a painter and… and could help with the sets.”
“If the other actors have no objection.”
“Oh, thank you.”
He wondered if it were a mistake.
“Mira,” he called her back. “Better warn him about Fiona. You know how she is about her reputation as a professional actress. Tell him not to make unflattering comments about her work.”
“Don’t worry,” said Mira. “He’ll say nothing.”
Harry Greenberg became a regular at rehearsals. He was thirty-two years old, exceedingly good-looking with very dark eyes and black wavy hair. At six-foot two inches tall, he was 3 or 4 inches taller than Fiona.
Harry was a gentle soul. During the course of the rehearsals, the cast learned that, from poor beginnings, his father, amassed a fortune running fleets of trucks. His lonely mother comforted herself with drink. In the name of culture, she had inflicted maudlin poems from women’s magazines upon her only child. The young man had never been to a theatre in his life. He sat his huge frame as unobtrusively as possible in a front row seat and watched the progress of the rehearsals wide-eyed.
Fiona now had an audience and she played to him. She read her lines melodramatically and finished with flourishes. Harry Greenberg was impressed. Alan was not. He warned her several times; she was penitential and corrected herself once in every three occasions.
At the end of the rehearsal, Harry, feeling sorry for the browbeating Fiona had endured, summoned up the courage to approach the formidable woman. He walked right past Mira and told Fiona he had enjoyed her performance.
“Darling! How sweet of you to say so.”
“I really mean it, Miss… er…”
“Oh, call me Fiona, for heaven’s sake! We’re all family here.”
“Thank you, Miss er… Fiona. You’re simply wonderful.”
“Thank you again, kind sir, but the director doesn’t seem to think so.”
“Oh, but I do.”
“He says I should be more subtle in my big speech? He is not at all happy with the way it’s coming out.”
“Oh, no,” he cried, “I thought you absolutely marvellous in that speech.”
“You flatter me.”
“Not at all.”
“Thank you again. I didn’t know you big, virile fellows were so sensitive. You wouldn’t mind carrying this heavy bag to my car, would you? I’m not as strong as I used to be.”
“Of course not, er… Fiona. My pleasure.”
“Are you planning to live in Israel?” she asked him as they moved out of the rehearsal hall under Mira’s terrified gaze.
“Well, I am considering it, for Mira’s sake.”
“For Mira’s sake? Why? You are Jewish?”
“Yes, of course.”
“And why of course? I’m not. At least I wasn’t born Jewish. I converted to marry my ungrateful husband for whom I gave up my life and my career. I was a professional actor you know, back in England. I made the mistake of falling in love and my husband brought me here. After giving him no less than four children and my very existence, he deserted me for a younger woman.”
Harry looked down at her tragic face with pity and concern.
“He must be very stupid,” he said gallantly.
“Well, she is pretty.”
“You’re very attractive and she could not be as talented as you are.”
“Where have you been all my life?” she said and he laughed, very pleased with himself as he placed her bag in the back seat of her car.
It was but a short step from hero-worship and Fiona encouraged him to take it. He could not believe his good fortune that such a larger-than-life feminine creature would want an unworthy like him. He moved in with her and Mira had naught else to do but nurse a dented heart and hurt pride. She cried a lot.
Alan found all this very frustrating for the play was due to open shortly. Apart from affecting the performance of his ingénue, who found Harry’s presence distressing in the extreme, the great professional took to kissing the air at her lover and reading her lines as though she meant them for him alone. At the end of every rehearsal, Harry applauded her enthusiastically and Mira ran to the cloakroom. It was too much for the director and he ordered Harry out.
“If he goes, I go,” said Fiona as sweet as honey laced with strychnine.
“You’re not concentrating, Fiona,” he said. “There’s no communication with the others. As long as he’s here, you don’t act.”
“Sheer nonsense,” said Fiona. “Not one of these amateurs here can match my performance and you know it.”
“I know nothing of the sort.”
He should have stopped there and walked away.
“I thought a real actress was buried in you somewhere but years of playing prima donna among us lowly amateurs, has left you with the habits of a ham. You’ll drag the play below the worst amateur level. So, by all means, go – go with him.”
He turned away from her.
She picked up another one of those wooden chairs and, before anyone could stop her, brought it down with full force on the back of his head. He fell like a stone. His head hit the iron square used to hold the wing curtains in place. The crack of breaking bone echoed through the empty theatre hall.
Condemned to a life in prison, Fiona, in her cell, forever regretted being unable to perform the play.

© Whale 2023
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I found the character portrait of Fiona quite involving but the ending, to be honest, a bit disappointing. I was expecting some kind of emotional breakdown, not another explosion of anger which was what we had already seen at the beginning. The fact that this one ended in a death was completely incidental. The first outburst could presumably have ended that way too. Fiona’s character didn’t change or develop. The death of the Director just seemed like a convenient way to bring the story to a close. My other, perhaps lesser criticism is that there was nobody particularly likeable in… Read more »

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