The Dresser | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Shattered Globe Theatre

"Herr Hitler is making it very difficult for Shakespearean companies!" rages Sir, an aging thespian who's attempting to mount King Lear during a World War II air raid. (Isn't that just like an actor, to take the narrow view?) Set in Great Britain in 1942, Ronald Harwood's 1980 The Dresser uses the war as a backdrop for the struggle and slow collapse of one member of a breed now virtually extinct: the independent actor/manager, the grand performer/patriarch who cares for and despotically rules over his traveling company. Harwood's Sir must battle air raids, rationing, blackouts, a lack of young, able-bodied actors, and his own exhaustion. As the play opens his grip on sanity is tenuous at best, and he relies on his dresser, Norman, to nurse him, loverlike, through the worst. Slavishly Norman washes out the great man's tights, jollies him out of black depression, gets him into the proper costume, points him in the right direction, and gives him a shove from the wings.

Norman and Sir can be sure there'll be an audience waiting, however, just as the audience depends on them for entertainment. People flocked to the theater in 1942 despite the air raids. As desperate as the situation may be in other ways, Harwood never suggests that Sir is playing before a house of eight people--or less.

Today's theater companies, particularly the non-Equity ones, have very different concerns, though many may still count fatigue and poverty among their troubles. There is no lack of young actors but rather a surfeit. Theaters compete with each other and with high-tech films and television rather than bombs and blackouts. With upwards of 175 productions to choose from in the Chicago area, audiences are often scarce. And so a merely competent production of this well-known play just won't do.

Shattered Globe Theatre's production, designed and directed by Roger Smart, is certainly competent. It's so competent it's dreary. It does such a good job of depicting the dull tenacity of Sir's company that one feels a sort of numbness setting in before the first 15 minutes have passed. In this period you get an idea of what it's like to have performed King Lear over 200 times--as Sir himself says, "It's hard, bloody labor." Early in the play it becomes obvious that Sir is a goner and Norman's destined to remain unappreciated in spite of his superhuman devotion. The only reason to hang on is to observe their relationship--which admittedly is fascinating. Sir (Dai Parker-Gwilliam) is by turns grandly inconsiderate and touchingly pathetic. Norman (Tim Decker) is hopelessly and obviously in love with him.

But in this production it's impossible to decide which actor turns in the more mannered performance. Even taking into account the hammy theatrical types they're playing, these performances make it frustratingly difficult to get at the real relationship that (one assumes) must be going on beneath all the mugging. Parker-Gwilliam may be a solid actor, but he's not old enough for this role and doesn't have the technique to cover that drawback; he translates much of Sir's breakdown into mere heavy breathing. Decker certainly commits fully to the role of Norman--so fully, in fact, that at one point it's a toss-up whether he's going to fall down in a fit or throw on a feather boa and favor us with a chorus of "The Man That Got Away." Decker shows all the signs of a good actor who was allowed to go over the top in a plum role; director Smart might have steered him toward some true tenderness by recommending restraint. As it is, both Decker and Parker-Gwilliam are so busy acting that they never connect.

Backed as they are by a solid supporting cast, particularly Linda Reiter as an adroit stage manager and Mark Alexander Clover as a self-involved company member, and playing on Smart's ingenious backstage set, it would have been a pleasure to see The Dresser rise above the merely adequate. But it just doesn't have the fire or the honesty. Portraying people who deal regularly in artifice is no easy task but hard, bloody labor.

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