The Show Must Go On

Despite age, despite war, theater continues in The Dresser.

The year is 1942, and England is at war. A revered but aging actor, identified only as Sir, is traveling the country, bringing Shakespeare to the provinces. Given the chaos of the times and the fact that most able-bodied Englishmen are fighting overseas, his is a depleted and ragtag company, struggling to do justice to the great texts, gamely keeping the lights on and the action going amid the sound of air-raid sirens and bombs falling. To complicate things further, the actor is moving swiftly into dementia.

The action begins an hour or two before the curtain for King Lear, and Sir has just been retrieved, weeping, from an aimless peregrination around town during which he began taking off his clothes. The sensible stage manager, Madge, wants to cancel the evening's performance. Sir's common-law wife -- referred to as Her Ladyship -- is torn: She's as tired of the life they live as she is uncertain about the future. But the devoted dresser, Norman, is determined that the show will go on. He flatters, humors and babies Sir, tells anecdotes, prances around the dressing room, offers nips of sherry, all the while making sure that every necessary element of makeup and costume is in place.

The first act of Ronald Harwood's The Dresser is more compelling than the second because it's focused tightly on the urgent question of whether Sir will be able to perform the role he has inhabited so many times before. There are a few too many plot complications in the second act, which takes place during and after the performance: Madge's admission that she has always loved Sir; a monologue by another older actor whose situation somewhat parallels Sir's. Just as Sir, despite his fame, has never achieved first rank or the knighthood he craves, this man has never been given lead roles, not even in the provinces. But because of the wartime shortage of male actors, he's just played the pivotal part of the Fool, and he's hoping this will further his career.

To Sir with love: Leonard E. Barrett (left) keeps 
Jonathan Farwell on track in The Dresser.
To Sir with love: Leonard E. Barrett (left) keeps Jonathan Farwell on track in The Dresser.

Still, the play's genuinely interesting characters are Sir and Norman -- Sir, whose egotism is so all-encompassing that it sometimes edges on magnificence, who is blind to the feelings of those around him, bitter over a rival actor's knighthood, agonized by the fact that German bombs have recently destroyed the Grand Theatre in Plymouth. And waspish, funny, tender Norman, a man with no life of his own, no duties other than feeding his master's monstrous and ever-expanding needs. This is an odd couple, indeed, and their relationship mirrors that of Lear and his Fool.

The Bas Bleu production, directed by Laura Jones, is blessed with a strong supporting cast. Wendy Ishii gives Her Ladyship depth; Shela Jennings is matter-of-fact as Marge, deftly undercutting the posturing of the very theatrical people on stage with her; Molly McGuire is a pretty, flirtatious Irene. But the focus of the production is where it should be: on Sir and Norman. As Sir, Jonathan Farwell has the manner of an old-fashioned English actor down pat. The marvel of his performance lies in the way he manages to sometimes be so powerful that you can imagine him holding an audience spellbound during the storm scene, and at other times far too visibly frail to carry the unconscious Cordelia on stage, as Lear must at the play's end.

Leonard E. Barrett, one of the most interesting actors around, makes Norman both a sad clown and the strong spine of the action. Watching him, I remembered a director I'd once heard discussing creativity. She'd described an actress who had unique talents that were hard to classify or to spot in an audition: an extra-keen sense for what was happening around her on a stage, and an unusual generosity toward her fellow actors, who actually seemed to act better when they were with her. These are rare talents, and I think Barrett has them. His own work is charming, and sometimes so inner-focused that he seems to be channeling unseen forces, but he's also giving toward others -- an attribute that aids the production in general and, since we all know that what we give comes back to us, adds luster to his performance.

When you review a play, you're supposed to judge only what you see on stage, but there's an urgent undertone here that's hard to miss. In her program notes, Jones says that The Dresser, with its focus on struggle and survival, is an appropriate opener for the Bas Bleu season: The company is currently waging a capital campaign and struggling to attain financial stability. Meanwhile, artistic director Ishii is determined to continue mounting serious work, refusing to pander to audiences with insipid comedies and dopey musicals. Fort Collins is not an obvious cultural center or a natural gathering place for theatrical talent; Colorado's best actors and directors tend to cluster in Denver. But Ishii, who herself worked in New York, has forged bonds with the increasingly sophisticated theater program at Colorado State University (where Jones teaches). She is also reaching out to new audiences with "pay what you can" nights and weaving together talent wherever she finds it -- all in the service of vibrant theater and a place where artists can do their work with integrity.

Ishii must sometimes feel as shell-shocked as Sir. But despite the privations of war and his own weaknesses, the actor manages to emerge on stage, robed and crowned, to issue his imperious first demand: "Attend the lords of France and Burgundy, Gloucester."

 
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