BASTA: Yet more buzz

That must be Laetitia Casta clicking up the steps in vintage Schiaparelli.

Entering Porky’s, the renowned rehearsal space on 880 Broadway where the Big Apple Singing Theater Association would be hosting much of its supernumerary practice for its upcoming production of Bison Don’t Cry, you’d think you were setting foot in a shopping mall, that’s how tension-inducing it was. 

Even dauntless Evan Ingersoll felt his nerves beginning to mount.

“We’re floor three, right?” he asked Gus Rippon, another new super he’d run into moments earlier while ordering an artisanal pain au chocolat at The Old Rugged Croissant.

The cast-iron gates of an old-timey lift clanged firmly behind them. Day one of rehearsals.

Gus turned to Evan. “Wassup? Oh, sorry, baby. I was following you.” He retrieved a cellular phone from his Burberry pouchette. “Hold on, don’t push anything.”

As Gus was scrolling through his email in search of the invitation, the elevator doors unclasped on the second floor. The apparition of an entire corps of swan-necked, Capezio-clad teenaged ballerinas blinked back at them in synchronicity before noisily jamming the elevator.

“Mmph,” groaned Gus, suffocating. “Can somebody hit the third floor? Third floor please?”

A few seconds later, after nearly shattering his femur on a pointe slipper, Gus and Evan found themselves studying a small map of the premises affixed to an adjacent wall.

“BASTA rehearsal, Room 302.”

The corridors were narrow and labyrinthine, paved with crème-de-cacao-hued tiling that was soundless underfoot: Gus, Evan noticed, had fallen mute as the two approached the rehearsal room.

A roll of cadmium-yellow duct tape hung solicitously from the middle of the doorframe marked 302 like a sprig of Christmas holly; crossing beneath it, one was suddenly struck dumb by the loud commotion of the interior as if by some strange magic, testament to the soundproofing ingenuity of the 1920s architects who’d designed the building.

At the far end of the windowless room stood a small upright piano, flanked by two men, both in pinstriped suits, one sporting a rustling chenille cape; and a woman outfitted in what appeared to be a pleated District Harajuku schoolgirl outfit.

Evan recognized these harlequin figures from callbacks. The taller of the two men (l’homme capé) was none other than BASTA impressario Joey Piccata himself, director of Bison.The shorter was Philippe De Kloötzak, a Flemish rodeo clown who’d stirruped auditioners through the basics of lasso art just a few weeks prior. The lady, Evan recalled, was Candi Boutin, assistant director to Piccata, and, as Evan observed, a nodding, obsequious yes-female before her superiors.

The product of a broken home in Provincetown and a childhood environment polluted by unctuous lawyers and parents who’d for many years far preferred to passive-aggressively parade their ingratiating new consorts around the sitting room (“Give your new daddy a hug!”) over simply moving out and dividing their assets like reasonable humans, Evan Ingersoll loathed smarm more than practically anything else on the planet.

He could smell spaniel-ship and sycophancy from several abrasive kilometers away, and could feel alarms go off and his upper lip tremble in disgust at the mere whiff of Candi.

Evan, you’re being unreasonable, he stopped himself, struck with the curdling recognition that this might in fact be the common plight of women in opera management. She can help you. Learn from her techniques.

In closer proximity stood a crush of young men. Counting himself and Gus as they sauntered into the room, Evan saw the supernumeraries now numbered nine… no, actually 10: Timothy Hanglewass, whom Evan and Gus had also just met over lattés, had apparently now returned from the washroom.

“You know you have to take the elevator back down to the goddamned ground floor for the toilet?” he whimpered at Evan and Gus, approaching them both from behind in a pair of the most figure-hugging cerulean sweatpants Evan had ever seen. He must’ve changed in the bathroom. “First and last time I swallow a large coffee before rehearsal.”

“Honey, you shouldn’t be swallowing a large anything, ever.” Gus checked his watch and clucked. “Are we gonna start this thing before the second coming?”

As if having eavesdropped, the trio at the piano dissolved their huddle and rotated to face the supers. By mid-morning, some of the non-singing chorus boys were now on the floor with their eyes closed, awaiting instruction, while others had been assimilated into conferences of their own with other novice supers.

“Gentlemen?” said the director.

Joey Piccata struck an august figure, though his fly was unmoored, and his speaking voice lilted quietly, affectedly, like a violin played sul tasto—albeit with a pronounced edge, as though the minutest of forces might immanently splinter the bow. “Shall we form a circle?”

He nodded to his two colleagues, who’d moved to the corner of the rehearsal space while Evan and Gus and Timothy and the other seven collected themselves.

“Welcome to BASTA. You should all know me by now: I’m Mr. Piccata, your regista teatrale for this season’s headlining production of Bison Don’t Cry. Congratulations on having found your way into our superior cast.”

Piccata paused and lifted a finger, as if checking the wind for applause. None came.

“I understand that we are not all equally familiar with the craft at hand. Some, as I have gathered from your vitae, are still but mere neophytes, probationers, fledglings, tenderfeet… as yet unfamiliar with the thankless work of the supernumerary.

“But don’t be disheartened, boys, never fear. The work is arduous, yes, and the proscenium cruel. But in due time, you will all begin not only to tolerate your role on the stage, but, indeed, to cherish it, reveling in its voiceless gifts which only the super can fathom. For this, I dare say, is indeed a true gift of the highest order I am handing you: the chance to support, heroically support, the celestial bodies, the stars, the leading men whom you will one day, I’m quite sure of it, reverently call your colleagues…”

Realizing the time, Piccata halted his oration. “Now: please report yourselves.”

He looked to his left, where a broad-shouldered boy with freckles was distractedly scrutinizing his chucks. The room hushed. Piccata glowered.

“Monsieur?”

Caught off guard, the boy rattled to attention. “Oh, uh, sorry. Nelvin. I’m Nelvin.”

“Nellllllllvin…” Piccata savored the name. “Enchanté. E il tuo cognome?

“I’m sorry?”

There was cool menace in the director’s eyes, which made Nelvin blush. “Banano,” he cleared his throat. Evan was himself stung by empathy nerves. “Banano.”

“Nelvin Banano-Banano?”

“Yes sir. I mean, no sir. Just one Banano.”

“Well, then, Mister Plantain. Welcome to Basta. We shall see if you make it through our rehearsal without, eh, flambé-ing out… Now, who is this young man next door?” Piccata left his new acquaintance just as economically as he’d met him. “Gentlemen! We move clockwise! Who are you, signore? Ti chiamano Peter Potato, I imagine.”

With a whip of the cape, Piccata proceeded to pass through the supers, stopping at each to pick up the occasional superficial tidbit concerning provenance, family history, employment, avocation, bucket list items, favorite sounds. Delighting in each enunciated surname, the director made a tone poem of the cast. All told, it seemed generally to Evan to be a lookbook of attractive misfits.

Hugh-Antoine Mamiami was a biceped, mustachioed baker from Augusta of French-Peruvian extraction who played canasta in his free time and liked the euphony produced by eggs frying in a buttered pan.

Cesar Soon-Bak was a fitness instructor, hailing from Koreatown, who hoped to eventually embark on “one mad brolope across Nepal, dude,” a shoestring voyage he imagined would somehow also involve consuming a marijuana-infused lassi in Kathmandu and engaging in intercourse with three estranged girlfriends he hoped to meet up with there (and whose lovemaking noises, he explained to an indifferent Piccata, also happened to constitute his very favorite sounds on the planet earth, if you knew what he was saying).

Nixon Ben Mahmoud, 35, worked in development for the Architecture Museum uptown. He was from Long Island, though his parents were Tunisian. He’d inherited his name, he explained, because it was the most American one they knew when they hit New York from North Africa in the early Eighties.

Nixon’s reluctant smile was so bonny, it hurt Evan. He felt his loins stir with enticement.

Doe-eyed “dancer, model, actor, singer (in that order)” Pluto Hogtavian of Worcester, Mass., was an ingénu partial to photography, wanted to see Dolly Parton before he died, and rather appreciated the tuneful din of the dog day cicada.

“I used to stay up all night at my Uncle John’s listening to them sing by my window,” he clarified poetically.

Piccata cocked an eyebrow, sizing up the super with the meaty hamstrings. “Your Uncle John’s? How adorable!”

“I think he should drop the ‘uncle’ part and just tell it like it is,” snickered Gus to Evan.

“And whom do we have here?”

“Gustavo Rippon, sir. You can call me Gus.”

“Oh yes, Gustavo. Je me souviens. You’re the one who wanted so badly to take part in this production. I will tell you all only once how I feel about those who speak out of turn. I believe they deserve maximum punishment, and I defy you to test me on what that punishment might entail.”

“My apologies.”

“Accepted. Now, Gustavo: since you already seem to know the gentleman who stands beside you, why don’t you introduce him to the rest of us.”

“Who, this guy?” Gus asked, pointing to a squirmy Evan. “Why, he’s Evan Ingersoll.”

“Ah, Evan Ingersoll, I see. Hyggelig å møte deg, kjære Evan.”

Degogså,” replied Evan dryly, butchering his grandma’s Norwegian.

Piccata was beguiled. “Rancheros, a Viking stands amongst us! Monsieur Ingersoll, would you care to relay a bucket list item to us?”

“Well, this is probably one. I guess I’d also like to write something someday.”


Later that evening, Columbus Circle swarmed. The Algonquin Opera was hosting its opening-night gala performance of Lucia di Lammermoor, and all the relevant stops had been pulled extravagantly out.

A red carpet had been rolled out in front of the theatre, and was now being trampled on by scores of kilted hucksters toting merchandise, a lot of plastic Lucia di Lammermoor sabers and limited-edition, Algonquin-logoed tam o’ shanters.

Soon, an armada of spendy vehicles laden with minor celebrities would pull up to the curb and open like clam shells, depositing their famous riders as though delivering a fresh gaggle of restive Venuses to the mortals on land.

Proletarian consumers would gamely stand by and gawk appreciatively, or else lose themselves in gape-mouthed chatter, tracking B- and C-listers’ glittered movements with the topographic precision of a forest trapper. Didja see Tom Berenger over there, 45 degrees of the fountain, with the diet coke? That must be Laetitia Casta clicking up the steps in vintage Schiaparelli. Was that—I think that was!—rapper Macklemore? Man, that’s one atrocious tartan jumpsuit.

Rumor had it that Hillary Rodham would be arriving shortly with her brother.

The throng shuffling into the building was already bracing itself for an odd performance. Thespians Katarina Nippelnaya and Grigor Sillivili were leading a cast of relative up-and-comers, a gamble for the Algonquin.

Yet more buzz surrounded the man who was not there, Maestro Jerold Offerman, who’d been unceremoniously toppled from his aerie only a few weeks before tonight’s premiere. Stepping in with the baton was unflappable Austrian-American conductor Sal Piesessenbitz.

Those in the audience knew not what to expect. But they were primed. Soon, the lights would go down, the chandeliers up, and another Algonquin fantasy slip the surly bonds of the West Sixties and take wing. Soon, they would know exactly what had gone on in Offerman’s wake.


Jesús Halévy was loitering alone outside the theatre when his cell phone went off.

“Hello?”

“Hello?”

“Hello?”

“Hey, is this Jesús?”

“Yeah, speaking.”

Silence.

“Hello?” snapped Jesús. “Listen if you’re selling something, I’m not interes—”

“Jesús, it’s me. Florencita…”

Jesús couldn’t believe it. Years had passed since he’d last heard from his cousin, who was now, from what little he knew, living in Akron.

“Florencita!”

“Sí. You left me a message. So I’m calling you back, primo.”

“Oh my god, oh my god, prima. No lo puedo creer!” A harried woman in an angora maxi dress, also deeply submerged in conversation, almost crashed into Jesús. “But oh, listen, I can’t talk much now. I’m at a show.”

“It’s okay, we can catch up later,” Florencita replied. “But you said in your message you were trying to find your sister Consuela?”

“Yes, I was—yes, I am trying to find her. I have something important to tell her. It’s about Shmuely. Do you know where she is?”

“I was just going to tell you: I do. She’s still dancing at El Gatito Goloso.”

“‘El Gatito’ what?!”

“Goloso. Consuela hasn’t changed much.”

“Well, do you have her number?”

“What kind of woman do you take me for?” snapped Florencita. “She and I haven’t spoken in over a year. My son saw her at the club a few months ago.”

“Well, did he talk to her?”

“He did. Tony also hasn’t changed much…”

“Do you think I should call him?” asked Jesús.

“That’s what I was going to tell you. Why don’t you call Tony and see if he can find you her number?”

Feeling around in his pocket for a scrap of paper, Jesús felt winded. Locating his sibling would be tricky, he abruptly realized. He might need some help.

“Evan,” he thought, starting out for the lobby. “Evan would know what to do.”


Illustration by Ben A. Cohen

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