Most adults can dress themselves, and so when we hear these days that someone has been engaged as a dresser by a theater company we assume that his job is principally to assist cast members who need to change costumes quickly and get back on to the stage. It was not always that way, though.
For example, at the time and place Ronald Harwood invokes in The Dresser – Britain, during the worst days of World War II – Norman (Bruce Randolph Nelson) is not only dresser but makeup overseer, factotum, general nursemaid, and Praetorian Guard for Sir (Carl Schurr), an actor and company manager who is barreling into dementia. The company is touring the English hinterlands, performing Lear in rep with Richard III and Macbeth. Sir, notwithstanding his mighty age (I’m guessing seventy-five, from the look of him) is playing the title role in all three productions.
It was a grand time for the English theater, before its footprint was diminished by television and – what? video games? YouTube? Despite the rusticity of the local venue, Sir has a dressing room which would be the envy of any actor today, with a grand couch, a large closet, a sizeable makeup table and a back room. And you have noted his honorific, which is the only name by which he is called; his much younger wife (Deborah Hazlett), also a company member, is called “Her Ladyship.” And Lear – the day’s production – has a full house, even though it is in the middle of the German bombing season. (These appear to be the infamous Baedeker raids, about which German propagandist Gustav Braun von Sturm boasted “[w]e shall go out and bomb every building in Britain marked with three stars in the Baedeker Guide.”)
The Dresser is usually a play about Norman’s sufferings at the hands of the tyrannical Sir, but this Derek Goldman-directed production subtly shifts the emphasis to the play’s advantage. Sir is blustery and selfish, certainly, but it is clear that at this point in his life he is really not running much of anything. Instead, Norman, fastidious and waspish, controls the theater company by controlling Sir. And he obviously revels in it. He outmaneuvers Her Ladyship to assure that Sir – who is in a state nearing collapse – goes out and performs; he cuts off the suspicious stage manager (Megan Anderson) whenever he needs to and admonishes the company ingénue (Emily Vere Nicoll) for getting a little too close to Sir. He even gets to announce to the audience that the show will go on, though the bombs whistle and chill above. (“Anyone who wishes to live,” he Freudian-slips, “I mean, anyone who wishes to leave may do so quietly by the back exits.”) Though these are the worst of times for England, they are the best of times for Norman. He is large and in charge.
If you are a fan of plays which chase a single idea or plot development down until it is resolved at the climax, The Dresser is probably not your cup of tea. It is diffuse, ruminative, full of atmospheric vignettes; the climax, though powerful, is a quiet one.
But what atmosphere! And what vignettes! We see the theater as it was, backstage, in all its seedy glory at a time before memory for most of us. To see the company work the orchestra of handcrafted machines created for the purpose of making the wind blow for Lear is to understand, instantly, what it meant to be a company then. Even the surly Oxenby (James Whalen) takes his place at his machine, intent on bringing the audience from the terror of their own lives into the terror of this Shakespeare-created world.
Closes March 23, 2014
315 W. Fayette St
2 hours, 20 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $38 – $60
Wednesdays thru Sundays
Schurr and Hazlett are convincing as Sir and Her Ladyship; the general level of acting is high; Goldman’s concept is satisfying and well executed; and the production values are magnificent. But beyond all that, there is a compelling reason to see this play. His name is Bruce Nelson.
Nelson, at this point in his career, has become a regional treasure. Watch him play this nervous, meticulous, driven man – and then remember him as the sneering Captain Spaulding in CenterStage’s Animal Crackers and as Martin, from whom a Niagara of deeply sexual love flowed in Rep Stage’s The Goat, or Who is Silvia? This is an actor who, in the finest tradition of the profession, gives himself up entirely to his role.
There are some actors whose presence in a cast, without more, constitutes sufficient justification to see a show. The presence of Nelson (who in this interview said that he no longer performs in Washington because it doesn’t make sense financially) is sufficient justification to drive to Baltimore.
The Dresser by Ronald Harwood . directed by Derek Goldman . Featuring Bruce Randolph Nelson, Deborah Hazlett, Emily Vere Nicoll, Megan Anderson, Carl Schurr, Wil Love, James Whalen, James Bunzli, Will Cooke, Benjamin Lovell, and Frank Tesoro Vince. Scenic design by James Fouchard, lighting design by Harold F. Burgess II, costume design by Julie Potter, sound design by Chas Marsh, wig and makeup design by Anne Nesmith, fight choreography by Lewis Shaw, dialects by Gary Logan. Amanda M Hall, assisted by Erin C. Patrick, was the stage manager; Jillian Mathews was the props master . Produced by Everyman Theatre . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.