He wouldn’t reveal his name. Couldn’t, he said. So I decided to call him King Lear, as much for his regal bearing and salted crimson beard as for the tale he felt compelled to tell.
It was a dank and drizzly Monday night at the Blue Greek on Granite restaurant around the corner from the Plaza when I met him for the first and only time. My buddies David King-Gabriel and Laurelia Derocher had finished their final set of Broadway tunes. The crowd was gone, the crew was cleaning up. I was draining the last drops from my glass of ouzo when I saw this tall guy in a hip-length dark suede rancher coat slip a couple of bucks to the piano player. I watched as he tugged his black fedora down so low I couldn’t see his eyes. He turned away from me and started to sing. To the near-empty room, he belted out “The Impossible Dream” in a big-time booming baritone that had, I’d bet, filled bigger halls than this one.
When I awarded him my solo applause, King Lear winced as though he’d taken an arrow in his side. When I approached with my hand outstretched in greeting, he left my hand hanging.
“You write a column,” he said.
“When I’m not selling real estate,” I replied.
“I’m not buying or selling,” he said. “Do you have your notebook?”
He motioned with his head to the door. “The park. You first. I’ll follow.”
I obeyed. As a tabloid reporter in Boston, I’d followed scarier leads. Pausing at the entrance to Lithia Park, where the statue of Abraham Lincoln used to stand, I reassured myself he was safe. About my age, in his mid- to late-50s, he seemed sober and lucid. Judging by his clothes, his capped teeth and his recently-manicured nails, I figured him for an above-the-boulevard guy, another talented Bay Area refugee with a story to tell.
I had just taken a few steps past the playground into the darker recesses when he caught up. I smelled him before I heard his footsteps on the soft damp path. I don’t know why I hadn’t noticed in the restaurant. It was a faint acrid odor, not wholly unfamiliar. He probably heard me sniff the air.
“I’ll explain,” he said. “Let’s sit.”
We sat on the park bench with the swollen shushing of Ashland Creek assuring privacy. Then it was his turn to sniff the air. “What you’re smelling is deer urine,” he said. I must’ve caught some on my coat.”
“And that has to do with…?” I asked.
“Everything.” He chuffed a laugh then drew a settling breath. “I’ve done some research. You have a background in theatre and you seem to be comfortable with all things spiritual.”
“So I trust you’ll understand.”
I told him I’d try. And for the next half hour or so, he described a rather vague and nameless “congregation of sorts” that he, his wife and his twenty-something daughter have been part of for the past several years. Led by a female Eastern “master,” the “troupe,” as he also referred to it, were all highly skilled actors, many of them Equity professionals at one time.
Their belief system was rather simple and singular: Theatre, in particular Shakespearean theatre, must be performed in a super-conscious state of pure humility. And since even the most realized human beings are utterly incapable of entirely divorcing themselves from their egoic minds, a stage play cannot be performed in front of an audience. Any audience. At any time. As holy sacrifices these performances must be given over as pure offerings to God or god, or even the gods. (Whether the g-word should be spelled with a lower-case or capital “g,” or referred to in the plural, I apologize for failing to clarify what he’d meant.)
What that means for this troupe of a dozen or so thespians are once-a-month “offerings” on the darkest night preceding the new moon at a different location in the wooded hills surrounding Ashland.
“Not even animals are permitted to bear witness,” King Lear concluded.
“And that explains the need for the deer urine?” I asked.
“We sprinkle it to create a perimeter to keep the critters out. It doesn’t always work. But that’s not the point. What’s important is the ritual and our intention.”
“What plays do you do?”
“The tragedies. We just did Lear. No one will say it out loud, but comedies don’t work…”
“…when there’s no one to laugh,” I said, completing his thought.
“And you’re telling me all this why?”
When Lear didn’t reply, I pressed on. I couldn’t see him in the dark, but I heard his shallow breathing and sensed unease, embarrassment, guilt maybe. “What I saw you do at the restaurant? The singing? You’re not supposed to do that, are you? What is it? Some sort of a sin? Like a kosher Jew who orders a BLT for lunch when no one’s looking?”
King Lear’s sigh drowned out the roaring creek. Then, in a voice I could barely hear, he said, “I’ve been having doubts. “
“A crisis of conscience?” I said.
“It started last summer, after the beam broke in the Bowmer Theatre and they had to shut it down. Some of our people talked about it being a sign.”
“That the gods were angry?”
“I’m sure they must have been joking, but…” His voice trailed off. “There’s something else.”
“I miss having an audience. God, I miss it so much that it hurts.” With that, King Lear leaned hard against my shoulder, his body wracked with sobs. And I recalled something I’d read once, a quote from some Talmudic sage.
“As much as a calf needs his mother’s milk,” I said, “the cow needs to nurse.”
Once he stopped crying, King Lear rose from the bench and left me wordlessly with a nod. I gave him the head start that I assumed he’d want. And then I followed.