Updated: Jun 3
The Riddlesbrood players had been summoned. Our smartphones struck dumb with a hypnotically flashing violet light. A purple alert called us to gather with a Morse code-like sequence of pulsing faces; a cryptic language called, “Brooding,” that only we understood.
So, we traveled … down the 2-lane divided highways where you can’t turn left...past the steaming Jersey swamps and Wawa gas stations below $2 a gallon. Amazing! We had made this journey many times before, but we were less comfortable than usual, for our fortitude was being tested, and we questioned whether we would endure. You see, It was spring 2020, in the very teeth of the Covid Crisis and the weight of a pandemic-imposed quarantine was beginning to wear us down. We drove on, passing mobs of mask-clad wanderers, no doubt in search of Lysol and toilet paper. Twas a post-apocalyptic scene straight from Mad Max as we approached our Directors camouflaged bunker (or was it a concrete garage behind a pile of broken theatrical sets) ...an undisclosed location in South Jersey.
Once parked, we approached a wild bonfire, we donned our face masks and stayed 6-feet apart…not to social distance, but to prevent smoke inhalation and burns by the recklessly high flames. Clyde P. Riddlesbrood stood, waiting for us. Within the lapping tongues of fire we could make out the remains of old props, worn costumes and broken scenery … a puppet stage was being consumed along with a cracked carnival mask. The shell of a Dickensian backdrop turned into smoke along with Scrooge’s torn charred nightcap still hanging from a rusty hook.
Dressed in his regal purple cloak, Clyde began to read from the olden Chronicle (Also known as the world’s longest brochure). From which he often told tales of adventure, travel and sometimes…survival. Stories so incredulous, we weren’t sure if they were true.
Once all the troupe had gathered, he bid us all slather our hands in the last of the sanitizer and began to speak. As the flames golden light lit his face, he began his tale of four epic incidents previous to the current Covid virus, when all seemed lost, but the Riddlesbrood Touring Theater Company had persevered.
The first challenge occurred shortly before the turn of the century… when computers were just beginning to control everything. The Propheteers claimed, we had already become too dependent on computers, especially by recording years in only 2-digits. Had nobody foreseen what would happen when the clocks advanced to 2000? Would computer meltdowns send us to the year 00? And, if so, which 00? We pondered. The great 'dot com' bubble was starting to burst! They called it, Y2K, and people everywhere stocked up on water, gasoline, dry goods and flashlights in case computers shut down all infrastructures at the stroke of midnight on December 31st. Programmers frantically re-wrote code to accommodate 4-digit years in order to avoid almost-certain catastrophe. Businesses closed to be on the safe side. Many said that this was surely the worst possible time to start a business, but the Riddlesbrood Theater Company laughed in the face of impending doom and decided to open anyway. However, not wanting to be reliant on outdated technology, (and certainly not influenced by mass hysteria), Clyde P. Riddlesbrood’s brother, Josh, programmed a new database before the end of the year. Clyde went on to recount how, on January 1, 2000, absolutely nothing catastrophic happened, and the theater opened to great fanfare, having known all along there had been nothing to fear. So went the story he told. There is, however, an unverified rumor that a 2-week stockpile of food was later found in the back of the van. Nobody knows how it got there.
We listened intently as Clyde continued to read from the ancient tome. He told of things almost too terrible to repeat, but that must be passed along so as to preserve their memories. September 11, 2001, was a tragic day in the land and one that will forever be burned into the minds of all who witnessed the horror of the terrorist attacks. Darkness covered the country as the world mourned the thousands who had died. Coincidentally, Riddlesbrood had a show that very afternoon in Smithville, NJ. The audience of senior citizens had travelled from New York the day before and was staying at an isolated location with no outside communication. They had no idea that their country had been attacked. When they arrived at the theater, word of what had happened started to spread throughout the group. The actors anticipated the show would be cancelled, and understandably so. After all, would comedy be welcomed during such a somber time? Much to the troupe’s amazement, the audience decided to continue with the show ... but, how? What could the actors do? Would silly jokes still be OK? Would corny puns still get a chuckle? The troupe decided to alter the beginning of the show by adding a patriotic speech and leading the audience in singing the National anthem, to which the crowd joined in. Apparently, the actors even became so bold as to throw in a few terrorist jokes which were, surprisingly, well received. Clyde didn’t mention this, but it’s well-known that the troupe later dug a fallout shelter behind the theater to ensure they’d have a place to hide in case of another attack, alien invasion out break or EMP detonation; however, the shelter was never used by the actors. Today, it’s where we keep our bad jokes.
Clyde turned the page in the massive book and then told us the tale of The Great Recession of 2008 when the real estate market crashed due to rampant speculation and subprime mortgages. There were suddenly thousands of vacant homes and unpaid loans. Consequently, there were also hundreds of business bankruptcies creating zombie companies! This recession should have been the demise of Riddlesbrood, as restaurants and banquet facilities that the troupe relied on, shuttered their doors. But, the troupe persevered. They refocused their attention on house parties and other private events that could be held anywhere. They also reduced their overhead by getting rid of their storage units and keeping their equipment in tents hidden in the woods. To this day, their theme song sounds like a carnival and their microphones smell like a bear.
Just when we thought we’d heard everything, Clyde threw an old wooden trunk into the fire casting a huge column f smoke into the night sky. He then revealed another adversity. The end of the world had been foretold. The Mayans had predicted Armageddon. Neither Nostradamus nor Edgar Cayce could foretell if the sun, Earth, and the center of the Milky Way would be aligned on December 21, 2012. The Mayan calendar appeared to be ending, and apparently, so was common sense. After having survived three previous catastrophes, Clyde P. Riddlesbrood openly scoffed in the face of this one. He laughed as he spoke of the weeks leading up to December 21st. In response to the prophesied Apocalypse, the theatrical troupe created a new show called, “Apoca-Laughs” to show their contempt for the alleged end of days. The show featured quirky “prepper” characters preparing for the impending doomsday. Clyde’s voice rose excitedly as he mentioned the tactical military surplus he was able to purchase under the guise of creating theatrical realism for the show. We glanced at each other and laughed nervously.
By this time, the fire had begun to die, and our masks were becoming itchy. As Clyde threw a pile of tattered scripts into the flames, he went on to explain that he was burning the past to prepare for the future, so we’d be ready to perform spectacular new shows with fresh sets, props and stories to entertain audiences who’d be hungry for hilarity after the scourge had passed. But, how would Riddlesbrood Touring Theater Company survive the infectious virus that had broken supply chains, shuttered businesses and quarantined our comedic performers?
Clyde revealed that we were to begin by sowing a victory garden. Plant the seeds of self-sufficiency in case the supermarket food dwindled again, or inflation made eggs $300 a dozen.
“We will not be starving artists,” Clyde announced energetically. “Instead we will eat heartily of our own Broodfood.” We weren’t sure if it was overkill, but as he was paying us well we did not question his judgment. Furthermore, we now knew that Clyde and our seasoned castmates had endured prior hardships. So, we planted seeds ... purple seeds to grow purple vegetables. A “Broodfood” garden would sustain us until the day returned when we would, once again, feast on the laughter of an audience.
As we turned to leave, we marveled at how our little theater had survived so many severe challenges in 20 years. We hesitated, then turned to Clyde P. Riddlesbrood and asked the burning question that was on everyone’s mind. What was the secret to Riddlesbrood Touring Theater’s survival? “Perseverance,” he said. “It’s my middle name!”
As we ventured home that day, we all had no doubt that the theater company would pull through Covid-19. The unconquerable Riddlesbrood Touring Theater Company has always survived by doing what we do best … keeping their audiences’ needs first and laughing in the face of adversity.
By Karla Shantz