by. Matt Herzberg
The city council was a circle of heads and the people in the audience applauded when the curtains rose. Oversized and made from paper-mache with exaggerated features harshly drawn and finely sculpted. A screaming, snarling, teeth gnashing circle of giant heads. A marching bob of furrowed brows, clenching lids, exploding cheeks in hues of purple and red... A circle of giant heads!
The orchestra played feverishly from the pit to welcome these twelve and their angry arrival. Horns and flutes with desperate short bursts, strings strummed to be split, and beating drums to be broken. The theme of the city council was erratic as they bumbled and stumbled forward into one another, pushing and shoving and slapping each other’s overplayed faces. Doing so caused each slapped head to spin round-and-round-and-round. Turning and whirling and shouting and cursing. Throwing split fingers, back in retaliation, at each other’s humungous cartoon eyes. Spitting spittle, vomiting venom, pulling out tufts of hair and then lighting them on fire at nearby torches.
Meanwhile the audience watches with “ooooo”’s and “aahhhhhh”’s and held breath to keep themselves from wretch at the horrible smell of burning hair. It was real, thats what they whispered amongst themselves. The hair was real! They stood and clapped and shouted for more! Yet the show was just starting the same way it had every year, in the exact same way, with the exact same flourish, and every note with every measure practiced and over-practiced. However, the hair was not real, nor had it ever been since the production had first started a century a go.
The lights for the stage went out suddenly, the audience silenced and took back their seats. The heads of the city councilmen all fell to the ground, their bodies flailing like fish taken from the water, wriggling spastically as they choked on the smell of engine smoke and coal. A gust of it was seeping in under the thick edges of the dark backstage curtain. The music changed to just the drums, which kept a slow and steady beat. On the backdrop above the stage had fallen a long, wide, white sheet patched like a parachute, spun from large gangly seams like stitches. There they could see shadows of large steam powered demolishers which added a horrible rumble and rattle as they raised their long crane-like necks.
A titanous parade of demolishers bent on demolishing. The machines were large and terrifying, like the heads and necks of serpentine monsters. Treads were their feet, grinding up the earth beneath them in a cloud of dust and soot. Which was really a load of earth brought in by the tireless efforts of overworked stagehands. Lobster like claws of the demolishers then clasped and snapped in anticipation of turning buildings into rubble. Long jawed mouths and sturdy bladed shovel heads were raised with hellish growls and screams. Dripping oil and heaving noxious gusts of smoke that sent some in the audience for the exits.
From the pit came the sound of a chorus of men and their booming deep baritone. The drums faded to let them in. “BUH-BUP-BUH-BUP-BUH-BUH” they sung as if they were the hearts and souls of the horrible machines themselves. “BUP-BUP-BUP-BUP-BUP-BUP-BUP-BUP!” They growled like animals all the way to the end.
Then the lights came back on, the shadows of the demolishers disappeared, and the chorus ceased. The stage was set anew with lavish furniture and painted set pieces of a luxurious throne room. A spotlight with a red filter focused on a man in a massive chair of dark wood and gold paint. He wears a lavish black suit to be modernized, with a bright red tie for his acceptance into the new era of steam and sorrow. Across his torso hangs a crimson sash from right shoulder to left hip, and the crown atop his head looks like its made of large golden teeth, decorated with fake jewels meant to catch and refract the light, helped by descending mirror balls. The last vestiges of the aging ancient kingdom and its antiquated monarchy’s last best hope in a young fool king.
Subjects fill the stage from each corner, these are royal subjects, royal of the royal. The ones closest to the audience step up on the backs of their understudies, who groan to hoist the host of them. The show must keep running! The lead from each side carries a sign, and behind them more signs begin to rise slowly to follow from the hands of men and women in business suits, elegant tippets, and formal short capes. They gather around the young man on the throne in the crown, brandishing the signs and he, the King, points towards them eagerly and beckons them closer.
The signs have names, the signs have titles, the signs have the words of animals and plants and things and events. Names like Underflower, Bricking Thistle, Creaking Battle, Wide-Hound, Sellstown, Novutempie, Tequwinton, Movarkkhangesk, Watchaunt, etc. Old names from the old world, representing old ways that have now come undone.
Across the throneroom floor the royal subjects gingerly step, their feet crinkle delicately, stepping across what appears to be wrapping paper under each and every tepid stepping foot. A present! A Present! A GIFT! A gift! Chime the voices of the royal subjects, their chorus is repeated in whispers from the crowd, it sounds like light rain when no clouds cannot be found in an otherwise clear sky.
As if on cue, the royal subjects drop to their knees to check that which is beneath their feet. On hands and on knees, they shred colorful paper decorated with holiday imagery: A pocket flask with a screw-lid, a pocket watch, a pocket knife, A book of matches, a pocket notebook, an old skeleton key, a pocket thunderbolt.
Now they are all reduced to scraps, ribbons of paper, flung into the air and blown out over the audience with large fans. As if caught on a stiff breeze, like a pile of leaves filched by the wind then showered like parade confetti. Over an audience become of children and child-like cheerfulness, who reach upwards with wriggling fingers. The soft, flimsy paper scraps held to their chests like a bouquet of spring flowers.
The royal subjects emulate this youthful fervor when they discover what lies beneath them. All of the wrapping cleared away by men and women in tight black clothes and masks. The royal subjects then clap their hands together with jubilation and begin to dance around one another with legs kicking out into the air. For the throneroom floor is now revealed, an expansive set piece that plucks surprised gasps from the throats of the easily amused. Those of which sound off like a series of displaced and deflating sighs. Their surprise is from a large map, a map of all the land, now at the feet of the royal subjects who dance in circles. From one side of the kingdom to the other, it seems to swallow the whole of the room when it’s full majesty is revealed.
It is also incredibly detailed and intricate. Portions marked appropriately as mountain ranges, rivers, lakes, etc are raised or depressed accordingly to give the floor a grooved and topographical feel and appearance. So much, that some of the actors lose their footing and fall upon bruised knees and twisting ankles. For a moment, and only a moment, they break character to cry out in pain. However, the grand audience plays along and cries out back to them. Like a game between siblings when one copies the droning pleas of the other for them to stop. The understudies replace the wounded eagerly, clutching the small of their back, feigning real and fake injury alike in order to not break character.
They all stand on a specific place of the map, the royal subjects do, on top of large outlines where there is room for two or three. On places next to large forests or bodies of water, at the bases of mountain ranges where large red lines connect one to the other faintly like the soft transparent strands of a spiders web. In these small groups they hold up their signs for the king to see. But the king is turning and dancing with extend fingers. His arm is drawn from his side like a sword. He swings it around in the air while spinning and gyrating to the jumping music that pop-pop-pops from the pit below. When it stops, he stops, they stop. The king twirls a hand like a gun and points the finger at a group holding a sign.
With large teeth they smile and bounce up and down and hold up their signs, waiting for approval. The king could give this with but his bobbing finger, and when he points at a sign he likes, the small group standing there cheers and hugs and starts dancing too. But when he takes the bobbing finger away from a sign, one that he does not like, the royal subjects scramble to give him something new. A new word, a new name, on a new sign that’s hastily raised. Redderkark becomes Reddersrile, Winterglen becomes Winter Mountain, Seven Stretch becomes Seven Fingers And Seven Toes. All those names keep changing until the King approves, and the king shows his approval by swiveling his legs and shooting his finger guns into the air. POW-POW-POW, the air pops with fireworks and colored streamers.
The procession shows each sign approved or changed and approved...eventually. But not every place has a faithful group of royal subjects to keep it anchored and waiting for the re-naming to begin...
Off at the edge of the kingdom, behind notable rivers and sizable forests. Almost forgotten and overlooked places, where too many people are standing in the way! For the King nearly misses it entirely, his dancing is nearly complete. But when one royal subject from the nearby newly renamed Tenofthen (which had been Tenofafter before it had been Tenagain) begins to yawn absently... Well then, the king notices someone who isn’t as excited as he, isn't jubilant, isn't dancing. He commands the tired lad to step forward and explain himself, but when he does the royal subjects all gasp. For behind the yawning tadpole is an empty spot, an outline in red that has nobody to stand it. What then, what then, what then? They all audibly whisper in fear.
The king is off his seat! He stalks across the floor, trampling the kingdom in his path. Town pieces are scattered as he side steps the rivulet river beds and hops over mountain tops. He pushes royal subjects down all around him like a giant fells ancient trees. When he gets to the open spot he begins to yell incoherently and swings his fists. The subjects all fall to their knees in fear, the lights on the stage plunge themselves into darkness. The backdrop of white appears once again, and in it’s thin vale the shadows appear again. The long necks of the demolishers raise and stretch like saurian monsters. “BUP-BUP-BUP-BUP-BUP-BUP-BUP-BUP!”
The passengers begin to lazily rock backwards to forwards simultaneously when the lights come back up. Like a practiced chorus, they sing a low thrum from their hoarse throats, it builds into a chant as the rocking increases in speed. The stage is taken up by the set pieces of an elevated train car filled with people. One of which is a woman with large circle glasses, her hair is long and braided and bound all around her like an octopus relaxing it’s tentacles. She holds an oversized book that looks quite heavy and is difficult to keep in place without the arms, shoulders, and backs of the fellow passengers to help hold it in place.
“Shifting-wincing-grinding to the squealing sound,
spinning of the gears as the wheels go round and round.
Sparks fill the air as the train leaves town,
showers of light floating towards the ground.”
The train leaves the station backdrop which is slowly slid out of view, a set of cogs extend from the base of the giant silver train body, manipulated by metal poles, long centipede-like legs force the wheels to turn in unison. The machine moves, like a snake uncoiling it’s body of train cars from around the station. The wheels hum and groan and the air is showered in a popping spray of sparks...just like the passengers repeatedly sing about. When the train has fully left, the people cease their singing and quiet down. The woman, on the other hand, keeps singing while the other passengers become perfectly silent. She jostles back and forth with them, shoulder to shoulder, seemingly oblivious that the chanting has stopped, as she is engrossed in the pages of her book, which she turns dramatically for the benefit of the audience. They cheer for her and applaud her, some of them shout out her name, Veejaye...
The background is a scene that moves on a giant poster roll of sheet paper. Details of the cityscape begin to smear from freshly made paint. Unfurling and stretching out behind them, before rolling back in upon itself at the other end. Buildings pass, large skyscrapers twisting and leaning slightly from their own exaggerated heights. Exhaust pipes just below them, large black tubes that belched forth clumpy charcoal colored smoke from fat lips. Below them, telephone poles and struts for electrical wire. Like thin brush strokes, the cables stretched between rusted and corroded metal points, where painted birds rested and pairs of shoes dangle by joined laces.
When the train comes to a new station, the background slows to a stop, a giant colored sign slides into place. Places like Nelptine Run, Iestyn St. and Rutherford Rutherford. Glowing neon letters in colorful reds and greens, blues and yellows that sizzle and pop like a thousand flash bulbs in succession. The body of the train is like a silver snake became segmented, coiling itself around each station it comes to. At a complete stop the whistle blows like a shrill scream to the screeching breaks that announce the cars have come to a gradual stop. It was followed by a cloud of black smoke, wafting from the overworked gears, smelling like burning grease.
The set piece of a side train car became a door and open towards the audience. Like the folds of an accordion, the door depresses and slides away to make a portal. Passengers stand, chairs unfold, hands of grasping fingers reach up above their heads. To find and catch at handholds waiting there for them, to keep them secure while everything comes to a shuttering, sputtering, seizing stop. Veejaye doesn't do this either, not like them, she is kept in place by the other passengers, planted firmly standing, unable to move.
The procession then changed as some of the passengers leave the car and head to their off-stage destinations to become people again. And some were then replaced by new would-be passengers who were once people. Eagerly they settle into their spots where the seats were still warm for them. It makes no difference to Veejaye however, once it’s time again to leave, she barely notices, everything is set back into place to resume the illusion of motion.
Then the lights begin to dim, only Veejaye is surrounded by an exclusive glowing brilliance while the rest of the car and it’s passengers are covered by shadow. A rainbow of colored light reflected from the neon signs that spilled in all around her. It happens when she leans her head forward to investigate the book further. The light creeps over her, surrounding and hovering like a flickering street lamp rocking from a stiff wind. There she stands within it, all alone but surrounded by other passengers who become stiff and stoic like statues. Wondering and waiting with quiet anticipation Veejaye’s exterior appearing calm, her face quizzical and focused.
All of that changes when the next stretch of background rolls into view, the paper roll shows several long necked machines off in the background. They have saurian looking dozer heads with large jagged teeth, which they use to smash pieces of the city off in the distance. The paper roll moves so quickly that the images practically blur together. The lights flicker and the other passengers come back to life screaming and crying out in fear. When the next station backdrop slides into view, an up close version of a demolisher is painted over the sign caught in mid attack. The set pieces for the door are ripped from their secure places and the people begin piling out on to the tracks underneath.
The passengers march in place, their arms held out to the sides for balance. Veejaye stands alone at the end with the large book held on her back as she stoops forward to keep from falling off. The train car and the backdrop are slowly slid out of view to make the passengers move forward. When they get to a safe place, they begin to climb down on spiral staircases held by long metal wires and attached to the top of the stage struts on the ceiling. Lackadaisically the stairwells are pulled slowly skyward as the fleeing passengers pantomime a downward climb.
The stage becomes the street, set pieces in the background twirl like maple seeds. The ever changing facade of buildings from top to buildings bottom. The journey downward is like slowly falling, and the people watch the scene transform all around them. The fleeing passengers help each other when they finally make the street. They stand looking to the sky staring with mouths wide, agape, and open. Veejay is the last, she has to toss the book down first and then jumps down after it. The passengers reach up to catch her and she hesitates to make the final leg of the descent. All it takes is for her to pinch her nose and jump with eyes clamped shut. Nobody is fooled, this part always causes those in the audience of a critical nature to roll their eyes and click their tongues in disbelief.
The giant heads have returned, the councilmen run into view and the audience un-welcomes them with boos and jeers. The city council still fights each other fiercely, spinning, pushing, throwing. Those who would keep Veejaye careful in her landing are dispersed like bowling pins. Crashing councilmen send the helpers sprawling, Veejaye lands squarely on top of the oversized book with a bruised bottom. Her hands firmly nurse her end comically for the audience.
The councilmen frantically shook and writhed in place while the big book was snatched up and their dancing legs kept them on their way. Veejaye hastily got up to follow them as they jostled and juked through the front door of one of the building set pieces. Her arms raised her mouth yelling for them to stop. They have the book, they have the book, they have the book of available municipal naming. The set pieces twirl back from bottom to top as the procession followed itself back to the stage front. They carried with them a large rectangular table, meanwhile Veejay struggles to get her book back from the pair that swing it back and forth between them. The table is set, some chairs roll out to the giant headed council men who turn on que to catch them and take their seats. The book finds its way to the center of the table, where it is opened, the council seats have all been filled. They stretch their necks with hands over chins, hum-hum-humming a tune of contemplation while they turn page by page by page.
Silence...for a moment and only a moment the council sits peacefully and perfectly still. However, this newfound civility doesn't last too much longer. The fingers begin to tap the table surface in rapid succession. Finally one of them pulls for the the sign of the city, the same kind that the royal subjects held out in front of the king. Each council member takes a turn writing a name on the sign, using the book as a guide, and each one is rejected by the others. Eagerly, eagerly, eagerly their patience is lost to them and soon the giant heads leap across the table and begin to choke each other, punch each other, claw at one another with their finger tips.
The book is cast aside, and Veejay reaches down to get it, pulling it from the skirmish like a wounded soldier there is something else to catch her notice. The book isnt the only thing that finds its way, so does the sign, the sign with a dozen crossed out names on the surface of it’s head. The book is opened back up once again, now Veejaye raises her pointer finger to the sky and looks away as she thrusts it forward into the awaiting pages. One word illuminates “DISTINCT” above in large colored lightbulbs that flash like a camera. A second word too “POPLAR” as she repeats the process, and across the surface of the sign she tries the new combination with a large black permanent marker.
Twelve giant heads are finally silent, they don’t fight no more or less but a sad truce is drawn between them. The fixed faces, sculpted from paper machae, once held ghastly visages of anger and rage, but now they are somber and sorrowed. Fat, sniveling lips frozen forever, sad eyes overturned and brows unfurled , and a pallor of speckled yellowed-white like vanilla ice cream. The circle of giant heads breaks into a line that follows to an office window and a steep ledge where their shoes will find little purchase. It is a portal, an exit, a release from accountability as they push each other through the awaiting empty space. None of them notice the woman who stands idly by in the corner watching them. A freshly made sign balancing up against her shoulder as she neatly puts the large, oversized book back on the table.
The new sign has the name “Distinct Poplar” scrawled in large black letters over the hasty scribblings of previous failures. Failed names that were already taken, failed names that were neither accurate nor forthcoming, failed names that weren't available in the large oversized book. “Distinct Poplar”, it isn’t a good name, not by any means, but it is logistically sound according to the rules found on heavily bound pages, and time is of the essence. Everyone in the audience knows the story by heart, and they call-out in support for the young woman.
The demolishers are closing in, their signature rattle-rumble plays off in the distance accompanied by the noises of destruction. Stone crumbles apart, metal squeals as it bends, wood moans and woes. A chorus of a deep baritones chime in from the orchestra pit to herald the arrival of the mighty and horrible machines. “BUP-BUP-BUP-BUP-BUP-BUP-BUP-BUP!” The men and women in tight black clothing and masks roll in huge demolishers to tower above the building tops. Horrible leviathans slink with serpentine backs curved and dozer heads with oversized jutting struts for teeth. Slipping from side to side each demolisher uses it’s mass to destroy a building chunk by chunk. Thrashing back and forth as gouts of steam escape from their joints to let loose it’s horrible howl.
A lone spotlight finds the slowly marching form of VeeJaye, step after step, her trembling hands hold the naming sign so that is raised above her head. Like a staff held vertically the sign presented and clear to see. Her first step out on to the street comes next, an act of courage in the face of certain danger. When her boot lands atop the street, a sound can be heard from above her, like a guttural scream of desperation. Something comes crashing down at the woman’s feet and it’s all she can do to keep the sign from falling from her trembling fingers. It is a giant head, cracked open like a jawbreaker and forcefully detached from it’s prop-body upon impact. A bright red ooze seeps slowly into a puddle. The first councilman has jumped, the first councilman has fallen, the first councilman is dead.
Veejaye is frozen in her advance, her eyes wide behind her large glasses and the shaft of the long metal sign threatens to drop. Instead she steels herself and holds on even tighter, and she prepares for another step. When she does, another council member jumps to his demise. Just as the last, a prop-body screams all the way down, crashing mere inches from her. Flopping upon impact like a dead frog and it’s dead frog legs furling out and curling back in successively.
She squirms at the sight of it, but steels herself none-the-less and steps gingerly over the body. Again a suicidal councilman lands to his performance demise. A prop body falls, a cushioned dummy with an oversized head, which rolls off stage after impact. The audience receive it with kicks to get the wretched practical effect away from them.
Three bodies jumping to their doom, the sound of their screams over loud speakers, chill the audience to the bone. It heralds the arrival of number four just as Veejaye builds up yet more courage to keep pressing forward. FIVE-SIX-SEVEN-EIGHT-NINE-TEN-ELEVEN! A trail of bodies in suits and a circle of giant decapitated heads. Then, from the pit, a series of horns sound triumphantly as the heroine, Veejaye musters to keep going. Like fell calls of a huntsman’s howling horn that echoes off before being answered by another, and another, and another until there are four or five blaring loudly. A call to action!
Veejaye pushes onward towards the city limits, the source of the rearing heads of the demolishers. The closer she gets, the more sounds of chaos and rubble are added to the stage. The sounds of explosion crash and a shower of rubberized debris falls all around her. The city people scatter, careful not to get hit by the seemingly random and chaotic destruction. The apparent danger is what drives the scene, perceived by the audience, both for the story and their concern for the actor’s well being. But each on the stage is an acrobat with a part to play. On a trampoline that springs them out of danger as if it was effortlessly simple. An elastic cord around their waist, and streamers of red, orange, and yellow to simulate trails of fire.
The buildings are but simple set pieces on wheels with adjustable ladders on their reverse side. Gears and wheels spin, propelling them forward at the behest of those who drive them. As they lower, they are rolled closer and closer, to appear to the audience that they themselves are the ones who are moving. Before the buildings are taken completely off stage, they replace one another in the back to become new set pieces. Stagehands labor to push-pull-push-pull-push-pull-push-push-push till they’re ready to collapse, and the sets themselves threatening to sway and fall into one another like a stack of dominoes. One, that if happened would find it’s way in hilarious spirals, with twists and turns from backstage to forward center. The crowd themselves none the wiser, applauding a dramatic new twist in this year’s performance!
Then the biggest demolisher raises it’s head to meet her from the background. It towers over her, its neck and head are painted with bright colors. A face has been made, eyes to see with, nostrils to flare steam, and a mouth to open with sharp teeth to bite down with. And on the back of this machine is a man in a black suit, with a large cape from his back and a crown upon his head that looks like a jaw of gold teeth. Arms crossed he stands wide on the demolisher, his oversized cape billowing from two oversized fans. So much in fact, that he nearly looses his footing, the weight of his cape nearly wrenches him backwards from the tips of his toes to the top of his head.
The king’s arms are crossed in disapproval, his face is angry, he glares down at Veejaye with disdain as she continues to walk closer. She’ll raise the sign as high as she can, she’ll push it up to where he stands glaring down above her. And when he reads it, the sounds of the demolishers cease and everything is brought still. Everything that is, but the audience itself, which bites on finger-nails with nervous anticipation. Gentlemen tug on the ends of their fancy suit coats while Ladies nervously squeeze the oversized brims of their oversized hats.
The moments tick, the moments pass, the moments crawl as the king slowly uncrosses his arms and with one definitive gesture, he grants the approval that saved the city. The finger, the special finger which points and calls and summons and settles the score. Then the king begins to dance, he unfastens the clasps of his extend cape and spins and twirls and gyrates his hips. The lights brighten, the pit picks up the beat, instrument by instrument until the full orchestra pops-pops-pops alongside the man. Then each of the cast and each huffing-out-of-breath stagehand immediately stops whatever laborious activity they were doing as the king takes center stage. Soon they all begin to take his cue. With their feet, with their snapping heels and swinging elbows, with the their shaking hands and swiveling hips. One at first and then another, followed by a few and then a few more who seem to catch the dancing fever. Soon the crowd begins to clap along with the music from the pit which pipes up and strings up and howls and hoots. The cast form lines and dance in perfect unison waiting for a standing ovation from the audience. As they comply with raucous cheers and screams, the cast heaves their chests for gasps of air.
The curtain slowly descends...as they say through gritted smiles of large white teeth; “Thats the way the city was named”