Set for trouble

I woke up this Saturday morning with a funny feeling of apprehension. You know that feeling. “Oh what have I done?”

Sadly, it wasn’t a misspent Friday night that was on my mind, but rather a purchase made — dead sober — at about 3 o’clock on the previous afternoon. That was the hour when I accompanied my sister to HomeSense, where they practically give away a kaleidoscopic array of funky furniture, pottery and ornaments. Something for even the most tortured imagination. I came home with a bench upholstered in pseudo-zebra and two cushions, ditto, edged with a deep border of chocolate brown feathers. You see, I have begun to turn my attention to the set for this year’s production of Blithe Spirit.

For me, the set is the single most troublesome aspect of production. Lacking talent with hammer and saw, I am uncomfortably dependent on others when it comes to construction. Oh I know, I can’t sew either, neither can I sing: but it is carpentry that causes the really spectacular trouble. The hammer gallops away with me, and the nail bends. The saw, instead of cutting a neat line through the wood, cuts a kind of spiral. How does that happen? And the paint ends up in my eyelashes, every time. I have a very discouraging record.

Indeed, the quality of my handiwork is so appalling that it amounts to a character flaw. It might even constitute a public danger. I remember a carpenter who worked for me once, a wise and gentle man from Jamaica, looking at me with great sadness, shaking his head and saying slowly: “Ahhhh, Jaaanet, you are a hasty wooman.”

I am willing to give up carpenty in favour of car-racing, if that would be a better fit, but finding an affordable handyman is not easy. As for volunteers, those with the requisite skills are a fussy bunch, not easily bent to my will. I’ve seen this sort of thing before. When I bought a rather decayed house some years ago, I realized that renovation was going to require some sacrifices on my part, and I spoke frankly to a group of unmarried male friends. (Despite all evidence to the contrary, I persist in believing that all men are born with hammer in hand and chivalry in their hearts.)

“One of you is going to have to marry me,” I said sternly. “It doesn’t matter which. That you may decide amongst yourselves.” Well, they turned me down flat, every one of them. Can you believe that? I tell you, it’s a cold world out there.

So I am forced to haunt the halls of HomeSense. Of course, it is ridiculous to buy furniture for a set, when the Ottawa Little Theatre is willing to rent it. The dean of amateur theatres in Ottawa, the OLT has been staging plays for 97 years now — and that means literally hundreds of plays over time. Their sets have included everything from medieval castles and British drawing rooms to Japanese teahouses. The flotsam and jetsam of those productions — fireplaces, old gramophones, medieval columns and even some vaguely realistic trees — are jammed into a dusty warehouse in east Ottawa. You can even find a massive gilt throne there, if you ever need one.

Linden House has leaned heavily on OLT in past years and has been lucky in its mining of that warehouse. This year, for some reason, I am restless. I blame the director. Some weeks ago, he said musingly: “I see the set as art deco.” I leapt into action like a dog when someone shouts: “Squirrel!”

First: I needed information. I got some books on art deco and thumbed through the pictures with gathering gloom. Art deco, it seems, can range from chairs apparently made out of giant origami to couches shaped like mahogany bananas, from lotus pillars reminscent of an Egyptian temple to tables of glossy, tubular steel. Swamped with choice and worried about bankruptcy, I felt a headache coming on. I fled to Wikipedia, hoping for guidance more attuned to the simple-minded. There I read:

“Art Deco was an opulent style…. Its rich, festive character fitted it for modern contexts, including the Golden Gate Bridge, interiors of cinema theaters…and ocean liners….”

Ocean liners? Oh dear. As wonderful as the Aladdin’s Cave at OLT had proven in past years, I had seen nothing there even remotely resembling an ocean liner. I read on:

“Art Deco is characterized by use of materials such as aluminum, stainless steel, lacquer and inlaid wood. Exotic materials such as sharkskin…and zebra skin were also in evidence. The bold use of stepped forms and sweeping curves…chevron patterns, and the sunburst motif are typical of Art Deco.”

Zebra skin! At last, I was on to something. Aluminum too. When my sister mentioned seeing a table at HomeSense in glossy metal and glass, I seized on the possibility as a terrier seizes a rat. We zoomed out to the shop and, sadly, found that the mirror-encrusted table would not do at all. I glanced around despondently, and then I saw it — a bench upholstered in pseudo-zebra! I looked at the legs. Could that be a “sweeping curve”?! And that dark wood, surely it was “exotic”?! Art Deco at last!

It wasn’t love at first sight. I didn’t fall easily. I hemmed and hawed. I circled warily. I looked at the price tag several times, hoping each time that it would have decreased a little. (It hadn’t.) Finally, reason triumphed over passion, and I decided to leave the bench behind and live with regret.

On our way out of the shop, we happened to pass through the cushion section, and there they were. Two zebra-striped cushions with a border of thick brown feathers at the edge, simply the silliest cushions I have ever seen. I had to have them. Probably you wouldn’t have these cushions in your house on a bet, dear reader, but that is only because you do not live in the age of art deco. But our characters do. When the first Mrs. Condomine (the ghost) refers to the execrable taste of the second, she probably had precisely these cushions in mind.

“Eureka!” I cried. “God has spoken. ‘Buy that bench,’ He says.” And so I did. Now I just need to do a bit more research on that pesky chevron and find a good place on our set for a sunburst, and there you are. Art deco (more or less). It’s going to be grand!

As for the long term, I find that I now own a zebra-striped bench, and I have mixed feelings about that. Given that I live in a tiny house already crammed with furniture — really boring furniture, I now realize — this bench will simply not feel at home. I’ve already offered it, once it retires from the stage, to various relatives, but they are strangely reluctant. So I guess it’s going to be a star attraction at the annual New Edinburgh Garage Sale next year. (Come see me. We can do a deal).

As for the zebra-striped cushions with the brown feather edges, they are going to my sister for her birthday. That will teach her to take me shopping.