Theatre Mirror Reviews - "The Dresser"

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"What Happened in Boston, Willie"

Reviews of Current Productions

note: entire contents copyright 2005 by Carl A. Rossi


"THE DRESSER"

by Ronald Harwood
produced, directed and designed by John Fogle

Norman … Mark Soucy
Her Ladyship … Pauline Wright
Sir … Jim Butterfield
Madge … Kristine Burke
Irene … Janet Dauray
Geoffrey … James Robinson
Oxenby … Shawn Maguire
Kent … Craig Owen
Albany … Dave Rich
Gloucester … Bob Stewart

Playwright Ronald Harwood has been well-served, this winter: his QUARTET at the Merrimack Theatre is the year’s best comedy, thus far; now the Mugford Street Players offers the year’s best drama to date with its production of THE DRESSER. Why is this? Well, for starters, Mr. Harwood has written two well-crafted plays with respect to the unities of time and place and though there is little in the way of action they abound with the quiet joys and frailties of the human condition --- and what seasoned actor can resist being part of these cozy ensembles, to engage in civilized dialogue for a change and to gently, nobly tug at an audience’s heartstrings? The Mugford production plays but a few performances more so if you want to see how community theatre artists can equal and surpass their professional brethren you’d best reserve your DRESSER tickets, now, or rend thy garment, later.

THE DRESSER is based upon Mr. Harwood’s apprenticeship to the late Sir Donald Wolfit, a distinguished actor known for playing the English provinces (as the old joke goes, Sir Laurence Olivier was a tour-de-force; Sir Donald was forced to tour). The play’s Sir is the aging manager and leading actor of a third-rate troupe touring England during the Blitz of 1942. Sir has begun to unravel due to age, drink, a demanding repertoire, and daily air raids and bombing and Sir’s personal dresser Norman does all he can to ready his master for his 227th performance of KING LEAR. The fussy, sharp-tongued Norman has long been the glue that holds the troupe together; his devoted service to Sir is rewarded by being left out in the cold, double-fold. Mr. Harwood’s valentine to the theatre captures the rivalries, gossip and bitchery, its camaraderie and uniting together to create in the face of any number of obstacles; the role of Sir spotlights what an actor goes through for his craft: the submersion of one’s own personality into another’s; keeping one’s lines --- and characters --- straight; going onstage while dog-tired and when inspiration has fled; the dark moments when an actor cries, “Who am I, really?”; the eerie sense that one is watching oneself performing. THE DRESSER begins with a report of Sir undressing in public; the best defense I can give for such action and why actors are so often unlike the rest of us is to quote from Edwin Booth, describing his actor-father Junius Brutus Booth’s eccentricities:

“Great minds to madness closely are allied. Hamlet’s mind, at the very edge of frenzy, seeks its relief in ribaldry. For a like reason would my father open, so to speak, the safety valve of levity in some of his most impassioned moments. At the instant of intense emotion, when the spectators were enthralled by his magnetic influence, the tragedian’s overwrought brain would take refuge from its own threatening storm beneath the jester’s hood, and, while turned from the audience, he would whisper some silliness or “make a face.” … His fellow actors who perceived these trivialities ignorantly attributed his conduct at such times to lack of feeling; whereas it was the extreme excess of feeling which thus forced his brain back from the very verge of madness. Only those who have known the torture of severe mental tension can appreciate the value of that one little step from the sublime to the ridiculous.”

You will remember that Liv Ullman’s actress in Ingmar Bergman’s PERSONA goes the opposite route and collapses into silence after playing Elektra. Acting is a divine calling but it’s also a hell of a life.

If only Mugford’s production of THE DRESSER could be transferred intact to Boston for larger audiences and wider recognition! (It would play handsomely at the Lyric, New Rep or SpeakEasy theatres.) Two years ago John Fogle earned a well-deserved Addison for his kaleidoscopic OUR COUNTRY’S GOOD; his DRESSER is rooted in well-textured tableaus so that every little detail from Norman’s reprimanding forefinger, shaken as if made of rubber, to a burnt-out light bulb in Sir’s make-up mirror speaks of Mr. Fogle’s constantly stepping back, observing and readjusting just as a painter does with his canvas. (His back-stage set design, done all in earth colors, evokes the proper dust-and-mildew atmosphere.) I recently attended two productions where one’s direction resulted in so many boiled potatoes while the other’s is a study in self-indulgence; Mr. Fogle’s approach remains the most satisfying: he disappears into a script and guides from within, allowing the audience to see the play as written rather than through blinders --- if this DRESSER and the Merrimack QUARTET resemble one another that is because Mr. Fogle and Gavin Cameron-Webb have both captured Mr. Harwood’s teapot-and-chintz essence. (I’ll wager that if given a cutting-edge script, Mr. Fogle would still come up with the playwright’s vision rather than his own.)

My only nitpick is that Mr. Fogle’s Norman and Sir are too hard: Norman must get across to the audience that he has been in love with Sir for years (which explains his brusqueness towards Sir’s three women) and Sir should suggest enough vulnerability and charm to justify Norman and others still dancing attendance upon him, this late in the game; Mark Soucy executes Norman’s duties briskly but impersonally and Jim Butterfield’s roaring Sir is no different from his roaring Lear --- otherwise, hosannas, all around: Mr. Soucy can work himself into one amusing snit after another and retain his crystal-clear diction and I knew in my bones that Mr. Butterfield would be bloody marvelous as Sir, and he is. The Mugford Street Players is his home turf and Marblehead is far enough away from Boston’s bright lights to have made Mr. Butterfield properly provincial (when in Beantown he is given walk-ons and understudies) and he has performed enough Shakespeare to have acquired the correct stature and authority. Be it brain, heart or liver that is the cause of Sir’s inner hell, the Messrs. Fogle and Butterfield have zeroed in on the source(s) and built the character into a magnificent ruin, rumpled and convulsing, yet ever rallying to the Bard’s immortal challenge. Mr. Butterfield’s most moving moment is Sir’s curtain speech to his unseen audience (here Mr. Harwood equates the show going on with England keeping up the good fight); standing alone, in his shaggy Lear get-up, in a cold white spotlight, this Sir resembles a fragile rod puppet gesturing through unseen manipulation and then folded away until next needed. When Mr. Butterfield earned an Addison for his comic romp through ANOTHER COUNTRY at the Arlington Friends of the Drama, I demanded to know when are we going to see his Lear --- THE DRESSER now gives us a taste of it, blood-and-thunder style. Mr. Butterfield’s voice tends to go harsh, even grating in declamation (but, then, that was often said of Edmund Kean, the trailblazer of Romantic acting) and in order for him to go lyrical he must sing-song in an upper register but his complete Lear would still be impressive as a Warrior-King rather than an unworldly sovereign. A secret comedian lurks within Mr. Butterfield --- his Sir is very funny when matter-of-factly spitting in both hands and rubbing them together prior to lifting his hefty, hanged Cordelia --- and coupled with his natural guardedness, Mr. Butterfield could also be a definitive Crookback, though I’ll still settle for his Archie Rice (directed by Mr. Fogle, of course).

Mr. Harwood has surrounded Norman and Sir with a well-drawn quintet: Her Ladyship, Sir’s wife and his matronly Cordelia; Madge, the stage manager, still resentful over Sir’s romantic indifference, years ago; Irene, a bit player all-too-willing to be seduced for a crack at Cordelia; Geoffrey, a well-meaning but epically miscast Fool; and Oxenby, Sir’s arrogant rival and would-be playwright who lends an unexpected hand during the Storm Scene. They are played, respectively and memorably, by Pauline Wright, Kristine Burke, Janet Dauray, James Robinson and Shawn Maguire; aside from Ms. Burke who speaks in eye-blinking tones of purest bronze, I have seen them all in other North Shore productions yet never in any of Boston’s theatres --- they would all be welcome, here, if given a chance. Amy Aldrich has done the proper research as to what Shakespearean costumes were like, several generations ago: thus, her Cordelia resembles Mr. Wagner’s Isolde with her long blonde tresses and robes of sacrificial white, her Fool is in clown-face and jester’s motley, complete with hood, and so on.

The curtain calls are done in mock-modesty; if this is to tell the audience that the actors are not worth a second thought, it couldn’t be farther from the truth: with THE DRESSER, their forty-fifth production, Mr. Fogle and the Mugford Street Players are to be taken quite, quite seriously.

(Years ago I read a quote from the German soprano Erna Berger: she, like other artists trapped inside Hitler’s Germany, was forced to become a card-carrying Nazi in order to keep performing (and to stay alive). When asked how she got through those nightmare years, down to the last bombing of Berlin, Ms. Berger replied, “I escaped into my art.” That could be the grain of a play paralleling THE DRESSER but told from the other side….and since Time has lent enough distance to make us both curious and objective, and since (selected) movies, soundtracks and classical recordings are being reissued from German vaults, and since books on Third Reich culture are always being published, and since a similar oppressiveness is now creeping across America, someone should take up pen, typewriter or keyboard and write that play while there’s still time.)

"The Dresser" (11 - 20 March)
THE MUGFORD STREET PLAYERS
Marblehead High School, 2 Humphrey Street, MARBLEHEAD, MA
1 (781) 639-0195

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