Right now we’re ago going through some really difficult time in our family. I think this might be the hardest thing we ever had to deal with. So I thought I’d pull up some old posts and have a few Best of Blog reruns. This is the first one.
Originally posted January 15, 2009.
So I’m about 13 and it’s New Year. New Year is a big deal in Russia. It kind of replaced Christmas and for school kids it’s the winter break. Usually there is some sort of party, school activities, something is going on.
That particular year our literature teacher decided it would be a lovely idea to have us do a play. Romeo and Juliet, in fact. She was somewhat of a Renaissance woman, and she always tried to “broaden our horizons.” By that point I was wise. A play with no budget and resources meant lots of after school work and much begging of parents. More, exactly a year ago I had the most traumatic experience of my adolescent life, which resulted in my losing all my extra weight, accumulated after quitting swimming, learning to dance, and being a lot more cautious with drawing attention to myself.
I wasn’t trying out for this play no-way no-how. So while everyone squabbled over additions and roles, I quietly congratulated myself on being smart and observed the resulting social drama with superior air of complete immunity.
And then one day our literature teacher cornered me. She was a wonderful woman, very enthusiastic, but unfortunately she was also cross-eyed, which made me terribly uncomfortable. I never knew where to look, so mostly I looked at her nose.
“Everybody is helping with the play, Ilona.”
I promptly snapped into the default Russian teenager expression, which is a dead brick face somewhere between “mathematical Olympiad” serious and “it’s not my fault” injured.
“I need a backstage menedsher and I think you can do it!”
“What is a menedsher?”
“It’s an English word for the person in charge of props and waving at people. Can I count on you?”
Not sure exactly what happened there but by the end of the day I was waving at people. Not only I had a crapload to do, but because I was usually waving and readily available, random aggrieved parties told me how badly they were treated and how it wasn’t fair.
After much drama and intrigues worthy of the Madrid Court, the role of Juliet went to Katya. I pretty much hated Katya. She was very blond, very pale, and cute. At that point I was large for my age (I am 5’2″ now, because there is no justice in the world) and she made me feel clumsy. She also had taken several year of gymnastics and showed off in the gym, while I mostly couldn’t jump that far, had never been able to do a handstand, and generally viewed the gym as a place to be frustrated and punch things.
The role of Romeo went to the resident basketball star, whose name was Astaltsev, and who was mostly famous for being about 2 meters tall and always wearing a hat so he wouldn’t catch cold and miss practice.
We had managed to acquire some sheets from parents under great warnings that sheets were expensive and nothing was to happen to them. We strung up a rope across gymnasium to hang our sad curtain on and off we went into rehearsals. Because we had no money, we had to get inventive. We used cardboard to make a two meter tall wall with a balcony, and wrestled a ladder from the custodian, which we positioned behind it. The entire backstage crew spent one afternoon making fake bushes out of green tissue paper. But the crown jewel in this collection was a fake plastic knife, which I appropriated from my cousin.
I introduced the knife to Katya and I was pretty sure she would hate it. So we go into rehearsal of the dying scene and out comes Katya.
First, she stabbed herself. Then she staggered about the stage, crying and making wounded dove noises. Then she collapsed dramatically, clawing at the sky, and finally died, slumping over in a close approximation of the infamous ballet “dying swan” pose. The whole affair took approximately two to three minutes, during which the prop crew had to whisper in scary voices at Astaltsev to stop blinking his eyes and breathe less, because he was supposedly dead and shouldn’t be rolling around. I haven’t seen a death scene like that until years later I watched Sheriff of Nottingham die in Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood.
Everything was going swimmingly, aside from Katya making unreasonable demands, which was expected, until two days before the production we were greeted by the director and two zavuchi (senior teachers in charge of specific areas of school education and administration) during a dress rehearsal. We put on our show. Afterward, the director made a speech.
The good news was that we would be putting on our play in a philharmonic hall next door, which meant a real stage with a real curtain.
The bad news was that stabbing was right out. It was too violent. Also, as one of the zavuches pointed out, most adolescents kill themselves with pills so the poison was right out as well. And, no, it wasn’t negotiable.
At this point Astaltsev, who had gotten fed up with the whole thing, offered to hang himself. His generous offer was declined.
The director and zavuchi left and we all had to duck because Katya started throwing things.
We had 48 hours to figure out how to kill Romeo and Juliet in a non-offensive manner. And that’s when I had a brilliant idea. I didn’t really want to have a brilliant idea, but they all kind of stared at me and said, “You’re supposed to smart, think something up!” So I asked my mom, and she came up with a solution.
This brilliant idea consisted of building a cardboard wall, a kind of parapet. We would put the same ladder we used for the balcony behind the wall and first Romeo, then Juliet would dramatically throw themselves off of it behind the wall, imitating leaping to their death. Nobody would actually see the dead bodies, no blood, no moaning, no nothing.
Everyone, including the director, thought it was a lovely idea, except for Katya, who since she “was not talking” to all of us, wrote me a nasty note calling me teacher’s suck-up and generally making a case for me being the scum of the earth. She wanted the knife scene, she worked hard for it, she had to have it and that was that.
The next two days were spent creating the cardboard wall. Having put the wall together and set it up on one of the smaller philharmonic stages, the prop crew of four and me went up to the fourth floor of our school. We got the heavy ass mat, and cussing and screaming and grunting, dragged it down four floors across the parking lot, to philharmonic hall, through it, plopped it under the ladder and congratulated ourselves.
Astaltsev climbed the ladder to test it out, took a dive, and told us that no, he won’t be doing that ever again, because he would hurt himself and not be able to practice.
At this point Katya had a her own brilliant idea and in a fit of benevolence (should have been my clue!) explained it to us. We’d get one of the smaller trampolines from the gym. It was just large enough for one person to fall on, if they tucked the legs in.
So, with an hour remaining, we go and get the stupid trampoline, drag it sideways down off the fourth floor, into the philharmonic hall, set it up, Rome and Juliet fall, everything is honky-dory.
The entire school turns out, 1-10th grade. (They canceled a class for it, so everyone was psyched.) We put on the play, everything is lovely. Katya’s hair is so curled with the curling iron, she looks like she sprouted spirals on her head. She is wearing a gown her mom specially made for the occasion, which for some reason, resembled one of those long Russian seventies-style gowns.
Toward the end, I slip away into the audience on the side to watch the final scene. Romeo makes his dive. Then Juliet dramatically makes her declaration, spreads out her arms, and plunges to her death. The trampoline springs creak and up comes the Juliet over the wall, propelled by trampoline into a lovely jump, hair flying, with a knife in her hand, and screeching like a banshee.
The audience is shocked into sudden silence.
The Juliet pops back up again. And again.
The entire philharmonic hall doubles over and starts laughing.
Our lit teacher’s eyes bulge out and she starts hissing at me to go and get Katya down. I told her that I wanted to live and wouldn’t do it.
Yeah. We all got chewed out, threatened with expulsion from Young Pioneers, and Katya’s parents were called into the office. That was pretty much the end of our theatrical activities. We were never allowed to put or mention any plays after that. Ever.