-Theatre Review by Kimberley Lynn–
The Dresser, by Ronald Harwood, now playing at Everyman Theatre in Baltimore plunges audiences into the crisis of 1942 Battle of Britain from its first line. The scene is a small British theatre where acting icon Sir’s (Carl Shurr) 227th King Lear performance is threatened by his failing mental health and Nazi air raids.
Sir’s dresser, Norman, fervently believes that veteran Sir can go on as King Lear. Her Ladyship, the actress wife who competes with Norman for Sir’s love, however, fears for her aging husband’s life. The stakes are high; Sir is the company manager as well as star and if he goes down, the company will certainly fail. Sometimes characters care more about Sir’s memory than the bombs raining on England, yet Harwood walks that thin line between comedy and tragedy. He wrote from experience; serving five years as a dresser to a Shakespearean actor. The script is not simply a series of gossipy quips but has considerable depth. Characters weave Shakespeare so smoothy that we believe, as they do, that our greatest goal is to support the Bard at any cost, risking friendship, love, and life itself.
Director Derek Goldman’s staging is seamless, and he masterfully shifts our point of view several times throughout the play, blurring the line between art and reality. Particularly transformative is the wild foley storm, whose crazed pounding conveys the tempest in Shakespeare’s drama. Applauding spontaneously, The Dresser audience doubles as the faux Lear audience, and suddenly there is a theatre inside the theatre.
Scenic designer James Fouchard not only invites audiences backstage but includes them in his design. His details are meticulous. Sir’s make-up props are real, and the kettle even boils onstage. A decorative, hemp fly system hangs over the stage manager’s illuminated station. Sir’s dressing room wagon rolls in and out, expanding and contracting the space, as the interior castle scenes wrestles with the exterior heath scenes in King Lear.
Sound designer, Chas Marsh’s first cue is not the standard phone warning but paternal advice from Winston Churchill to keep calm (this recommendation is also painted on proscenium walls.) The theatrical presence is not only visual. When the actors faced the faux Lear audience stage left, their voices reverberated as if they were acting to an auditorium.
As the dresser, Norman (Bruce Nelson) plays the truth even in the comedic sections of this piece. Witness Norman’s pain in his jaw, in the roll of his shoulders, the slight shake in his hands, the rocking. The audience coos at him and giggles as he nips secret brandy in the face of disaster. They, like Norman, want everything to be “lovely” yet much of this piece is about “facing facts.” When he stabs the wig head behind Sir’s back, the crack opens in the complicated veneer of friendship, love, loyalty, hate, and ultimately abandonment that explodes at the end of the play. “The littler you are, the bigger the sorrow,” says Norman, and as he supports a stumbling Sir, we realize that Norman is his Fool.
As Sir, Carl Shurr is the perfect balance of towering strength and crumbling disintegration. He’s operating on several levels, showing us simultaneous abject terror, confusion and cunning as he manipulates his co-dependent compadres. His lope, the way he drapes himself on the fainting couch, speaks volumes, and his transformation into Lear is a magical, almost cinematic moment. The audience roots for him in his exploration of the Pirondella problem, an actor evolving into his favorite and most feared role.
In this play about company, Harwood’s dimensional characters are solidly portrayed, partly the result of Artistic Director Vincent Lancisi’s vision of a resident acting company. The Fool’s hilarious costume is way too small for Wil Love (casting is hard during war time and Love’s character is subbing in.) Love doesn’t need a funny outfit. He’s funny anyway.
Megan Anderson’s portrayal of the company’s stage manager is honest, crisp, and sincere. Deborah Hazlett’s performance as Her Ladyship is a layered aggravation over the terror that Sir is killing himself. Still, she understands that within the chaos of his illness, her husband finds the core of Lear.
As dramaturg Naomi Greenberg-Slovin says in her program notes, the play is the “ultimate swan song for a way of theatrical life that is no more,” but this story about performing theatre under air-raid conditions and in the face of dementia also displays our temporality. Underscoring the notion that all humans are trapped inside time, Sir says, we “can’t move what cannot be moved.”
If you go see this show, as an added bonus you have the opportunity to participate in a meta experience. Don’t be surprised when midway through act two, you peer across the house and realize that you’re part of their onstage performance, lit rosily like a John Singer Sargent painting, and watching the actors perform Lear. Go to breathe in that moment.
Go if you want to laugh and yet be reminded that work is indeed noble.Go to see Bruce Nelson and Carl Shurr perform. This reviewer recommends sitting house left.
Post Photography Courtesy of http://everymantheatre.org