Sweetly sardonic, Ronald Harwood's The Dresser takes as its subject the whole world of the theater. And from the abused and neglected support staffers to the stars in all their megalomaniacal glory, Harwood tells it like it is. The truths he uncovers are amusing, sometimes grand and, finally, disturbing. The show must go on--but at what human cost?
The Denver Center Theater Company's robust production offers two intense performances and admirable direction from Anthony Powell (who worked such wonders last fall with The Last Yankee). He's an actor's director and the perfect choice for a play whose many details require a fine eye and a feeling for the small stuff. From the protagonist's meticulous ironing of a pair of underpants to his careful combing of a false beard, it's the particulars that give this production its emotional texture.
The story takes place in England during World War II. The aging actor/manager of a small Shakespearean troupe, known only as "Sir," has fallen ill, and his dresser, Norman, has taken him to a hospital. As the lights come up on the first act, Norman waits for news of Sir's condition and bitterly regrets taking the show's star to the hospital--he fears the doctors will insist that Sir retire from the theater, thereby emasculating him.
Sir, however, escapes the doctors and shows up at the theater, a little confused and afraid. It's Norman's job to get him on stage by curtain time and see to it that he's fully functioning in the title role of King Lear. As Norman wheedles and coaxes Sir into costume and makeup, the two men reveal themselves by their banter. Sir is arrogant and condescending, though rather amiable at times; Norman swallows his pride, makes excuses for the grand old man and devotedly cares for him. Both Norman and stage manager Madge (Robynn Rodriguez) love the old monster and have faithfully given their all for him, receiving very little in return.
But Norman's devotion to Sir is grounded in more than personal affection; he serves the theater, as well. And this is where Harwood's script transcends mere personality play. As brutally selfish as Sir is, the magic he's still able to make in the theater delights Norman, who finds his only contentment there behind the scenes. The women in the troupe (Sir's wife, "Her Ladyship," and Madge) want him to give up the theater and rest. But Norman knows better: If Sir were to give up acting, his death would be long and lingering--and depressingly obscure.
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Tony Church gives yet another memorable performance as Sir. His comic timing is flawless, but it's when he portrays Sir's feebleness that Church is at his most powerful. The thoughtless cruelty rolls off his tongue in weighted words stricken by age and infirmity; we can see how difficult it is for Sir to think straight. And while Church's Sir offers hints of tenderness for Norman and Madge, his heedless egotism strikes like a blind adder at anyone within reach.
This piece is called The Dresser, though, and the actor who plays Norman has a rare opportunity to display his talents. Fortunately for us, this is probably Jamie Horton's greatest role to date, and he is quite magnificent in it. Horton's Norman is all layers of disciplined intelligence, single-minded determination and complicated emotions. Every facial expression conveys something important, every nuance of feeling in his voice underscores a significant idea. Horton does a hundred little things on stage during the course of the show--and all with the relaxed skill of a real servant. The tragedy of his character's life lies in the fact that his self-sacrifice goes utterly unappreciated.
Norman's role as servant, nurse and priest to Sir mirrors the fool's position in King Lear--wiser than the patriarch because he sees the truth. Like the fool, Norman loves unselfishly and so is doomed by the king's unchecked ego. But at least as Lear goes mad, he cares more for his fool, becoming kinder and trying to shelter him. Sir is only vaguely aware that when he dies, Norman's purpose in life dies along with him. Those who have sacrificed too much are left sinking in the waste of their lives. And only the old actor really gets what he wants.
Harwood's unrelenting vision of art, human frailty and even the aging process rings alarmingly true. And yet, something is missing from its dispiriting ending. Maybe it's some sense that art actually does matter and that these lives actually do have meaning, no matter how sad they are in the end.