Place: Lynfield, Ohio
Kassouf and I started working for the recreation department the summer before our junior year. We both had turned sixteen the prior school term. He got a job as a swimming instructor and life guard at the town pool; it turned out he was actually good at something. I was assisting in a new summer children’s theatre program begun by a young English teacher who’d joined the Lynfield faculty and been our sophomore honors English teacher. Near the end of the school year I’d written a children’s play and would be directing it, along with helping teach theatre to a group of eight to twelve-year-olds. Even though we would spend the entire summer on the same payroll, and no more than three miles apart, thankfully our jobs kept us in two different worlds.
The Kassoufs were fast becoming the Barrymores of Lynfield. Both his older sisters had landed all the choice roles in high school productions for many years running. Kassouf’s debut had come sophomore year with a five line walk-on role. He regularly over-acted in his everyday life, so what he had done on stage was indescribable. I had the unfortunate pleasure of witnessing it all-both nights and a matinée, while working as house manager for the production. After each performance he stood in line, more eye make-up than Liz Taylor in CLEOPATRA, his huge hand pre-extended, waiting to be praised along with the other actors. Those five lines were so horrifically awful, I almost found myself feeling bad for him. For months afterward the same lines played in my head, only the way I would have interpreted them.
Our fall production was going to be Moliere’s TARTUFFE. The entire five-act French farce is written in rhymed couplets. We all didn’t worry as much about how we would manage to learn those lines of poetry, but rather would the great unwashed, (the good people of Lynfield), be bright enough to follow the story. Having read the script several times before auditions, my heart was set on the role of Tartuffe. I loved how ingenious it was to be the focus of the play, yet not appear onstage until the beginning of Act Three. Kassouf was having difficulty just getting through it, but his criteria for choosing a role didn’t rely on reading as much as it did simply by counting the lines. The character with the most lines meant you were onstage the longest, therefore that was the part for him. He earmarked the role of Orgon to claim for himself. Good. There would be no competition between the two of us.
As I held my breath I read the casting notice, standing shoulder to shoulder with cast hopefuls and Kassouf towering on tiptoes behind us all. He was nearly ululating, his shrieks piercing painfully like a dentist’s drill off target. He was to play Orgon, the protagonist and dupe with something like three-hundred-eighty lines and I, Tartuffe, the religious hypocrite with about eighty lines less. My best friend at the time, a girl named Gemma, was assistant director. She spoke French fluently, had read the play in the original and knew more about farce than the entire cast combined. My only caveat was being thrown together with Kassouf both during and after school for the next six weeks of rehearsal. Gemma found him more offensive than I did. “He suffers from the three Vs”, she announced the night of auditions, after spending two hours listening to him read, “vapid, vulgar and vacuous”. That’s why I adored her so, even if I had to look up vapid in the dictionary.
At the first rehearsal he made his usual spectacle of himself, strutting about like some exotic long-legged, long-beaked waterfowl, greeting each cast member as though we were guests at some party he’d thrown on his own behalf. He tried striking up a friendship with me for the umpteenth time. “We should get together on weekends to help each other learn lines”, or some such nonsense he used as his justification. I told him I didn’t work on a role that way, searching for Gemma as an excuse to get away from his annoying persistence. Once we got deeper into our schedule, he became harder to avoid. I was able to keep our time together to be only when onstage for our scenes. I would socialize with absolutely anyone-the night janitor or a stray member of the school board if necessary, just to avoid Kassouf. Being so obdurate, he wasn’t bright enough to realize I was snubbing him.
Tech week officially began when they delivered the trunk-fulls of costumes, which we learned accounted for more than fifty per cent of the budget. The men’s were more resplendent than the women’s: long velvet waistcoats, bejeweled buckled satin britches, and elaborately styled curly wigs topped off with Three Musketeer style hats with colorful plumes. When dressed for the first time, Kassouf reminded me of an arab masquerading as Captain Hook. Now whether he could get though his volumes of poetry or not, visually he was a guaranteed walking sight gag. He only needed to move about and gesture with his flapping arms and jointless wrists and he embodied the perfect fool.
The evening of final dress rehearsal, before we got into makeup, our director called the cast onstage to block the curtain call. I would be totally lying if I didn’t admit I had wondered about the order of bows myself. Kassouf just assumed he would take the final bow and it would not have come as a surprise to me. The first out were the minor characters in groups of three or pairs. The saucy wench maid got her own call, then it was back to pairs. We got down to him, the woman playing his wife and myself. Our teacher decided he wanted the two of them to enter together with joined hands for their bow. Then I was to come out, strike a pious pose, and join the line between them for a final bow-and hopefully several more before final curtain. Kassouf was visibly raging so violently inside that, for the very first time since I’d known him, he was struck silent. It was all joyous for me on so very many levels.
He fussed at the makeup table, tossing tubes of grease paint, banging jars and just plain acting ridiculous, grumbling under his breath to anyone around…except me. Now I was being snubbed by him, but he did it so heavy handedly that he came off sadly juvenile. As a result, at this point everyone was avoiding him. Later, backstage, waiting to begin our final rehearsal, I nervously paced while muttering still troublesome lines under my breath. In the near darkness I watched his huge black hat and plume bobbing in my direction. “Kazmarek” he hoarsely whispered, “Kazmarek, it’s not fair that you got the final curtain call. Everyone else agrees with me”. I told him that might be true, but our director obviously thought differently. He made some crack about me having an ‘in’ with our teacher, being a favorite-his brownie. He even insinuated that was the reason I got the role in the first place, coupled with my assistant-director friend Gemma. Out of pure frustration and self-defense I whispered back “Kassouf, if your part is so goddamn important, then why didn’t Moliere name the play ORGON?”
He was winding up inner tension, puffing and ranting like the self-centered brat we all knew him to be, hoping to engage me in his ridiculous fight. I refused to join in. It frustrated him that he couldn’t scream full volume like normal. He worked himself into such a pique that in the midst of his rage he suddenly grabbed his magnificent nose, threw his head back and proclaimed “You’ve gotten me so mad you gave me a nose bleed!” “Oh Kassouf”, I roared full voice, “you’re not acting this part, your really ARE a buffoon”. Dress rehearsal was delayed while they stopped his nose bleed and re-did his makeup. I watched it all, feeling as though I had won an important round. I had pissed him off big time and made his nose bleed without throwing a punch. At each performance for curtain call, as he would drop his wife’s hand to make room for me between them, I would nod to him with a deferential smirk before taking that soft, warm hand in mine for our bows.