Puttin' on the Blitz
Those who choose writing as a career often face many sorrows -- poverty, public indifference, and critical contempt, to name but three. But whatever woes must be endured in a literary life, the writer has one secret weapon: the chance to turn life experience into a story and, by so doing, spinning disappointment into pure gold. Such is the case with Ronald Harwood's 1980 play The Dresser, now enjoying a fine revival at Palm Beach Dramaworks. Set in England during the Blitz, this backstage tale follows one night in the life of an imperious, aged British actor and his obsequious personal dresser, Norman, who tends to the great man's every need while enduring a constant stream of slights and insults. The star, known as Sir, is supposed to go on as King Lear but has suffered a nervous breakdown. He can't remember his lines or even what play he's supposed to do -- he starts putting on blackface to play Othello. Norman must somehow help Sir collect himself and go on, even as German bombs rattle the shambling theater. Norman soldiers on, abetted by Sir's long-suffering wife, Her Ladyship, who is playing Cordelia, and Madge, the dour stage manager. Like Norman, both women endure Sir's indignities. Her Ladyship is on to Sir's serial infidelities and misanthropy. So is Madge, who has carried a not-so-secret torch for Sir for years. But the curtain is going up with or without Sir, and somehow the show must go on.
These characters and their sad situation leap to life in Harwood's script, and it's easy to see why. They clearly spring from real experience. Born Ronald Horwitz in South Africa, Harwood came to London in 1953 at age 18 to pursue an acting career. This led nowhere, and Harwood was reduced to taking a thankless job as a backstage dresser to Sir Donald Wolfit. The testy Shakespearean actor ran his own traveling repertory company, which really did perform in the worst of the Blitz. Harwood wove these facts with his own career experiences (and disappointments) as the basis for The Dresser, which enjoyed successful West End and Broadway runs before being adapted as a motion picture. Harwood's detour into the movies was fortuitous. Though he has written several plays, none has found the favor that The Dresser did, but his film work has taken off. He recently won an Oscar for writing The Pianist.
The Dresser is more character study than riveting drama, but it's finely wrought and wonderful material for actors. It's also a paean to a bygone era, when traveling classical repertory companies traversed the regional towns of England, playing a different Shakespeare play each night. Much of this may seem foreign to modern American audiences, but that world of faded theaters and short-handed, second-rate acting troupes still echoes in England. It's no wonder The Dresser found an enthusiastic response on its debut. In the Dramaworks production, producing artistic director William Hayes makes a rare appearance on-stage in the title role, and he's terrific. Hayes' Norman is a fussy, deeply romantic little man, a snarl of emotional contradictions, forever doomed to be overlooked and undervalued. Hayes has considerable acting gifts. He gives Norman a squashed, no-neck stance, flapping gestures, and a sing-songy Midlands shop-clerk accent that's spot-on, a rarity among American actors.
Hayes gets excellent support from two of South Florida's most accomplished actresses, Elizabeth Dimon as Madge and Angie Radosh as Her Ladyship, each of whom brings a full, specific emotional life to the stage. As Sir, Hal Johnstone is physically and vocally imposing, but he doesn't quite measure up to all of the role's demands. Johnstone finds the character's petty, self-pitying aspects but little of his charm or incandescence. With virtually all the other characters in awe or in love with him, Sir must demonstrate an undeniable appeal despite his obvious failings. Johnstone's use of Sir's flowery language, both Shakespeare's and Harwood's, is at times less than commanding. This may be by design, but if Sir doesn't wow his cohorts with rhetorical gifts, what exactly is his appeal? The supporting cast ranges from serviceable to noteworthy, particularly Sarah Coleman as a sexed-up, ambitious production assistant. Director Nanique Gheridian does a fine job of evoking the shabby, creaking backstage theater world. Using a complex sound design from Chris Bell and herself, Gheridian conjures up the off-stage world of the audience and the on-stage performance while bombers roar overhead and real plaster powders down from the rafters (a nice touch). The set design by Hayes, a dark wooden dressing room and a cramped backstage area with squeaking floorboards, makes good use of the company's tiny studio space, serving as a fine evocation of the post-war era. Pam Kent's deliberately tacky Shakespearean costumes look appropriately incongruous in the gloomy off-stage setting.
With The Dresser, Palm Beach Dramaworks demonstrates a new, heightened level of acting craft and another assured step toward creative maturity. This company has come a long way since its inception only a few years ago. With the South Florida arts scene battling an economic downturn, uncertainties from war and terrorism, and a general crisis in the arts, that's a welcome spot of good news.
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