“Is man no more than this?” King Lear asks, confronted by the sight of a near-naked madman on the heath, on a storm-swept night, just as he’s about to lose his wits. It seems to be the question at the heart of The Dresser, a play about an actor playing King Lear and waited on by his loyal attendant.
Staged by Repertory Philippines to end its season, this play by Ronald Harwood, which grows out of his own experience attending to a renowned actor, examines the little world that revolves around this singular character.
The man in question is irascible and spiteful, feeble and forgetful, proud and peremptory, childish and severely egotistical. He is, in other words, an analogue of Shakespeare’s aged monarch. Never named (everyone calls him “Sir,” an illusion of superiority he probably insists on), he was a brighter figure in his heyday, but this was long ago. Nowadays he resorts to assembling a troupe of performers that traverses the great city of London. Worse, the Great War is on. Much younger actors have been called away, and he must make the best of a bad lot. Compounding matters is that the theaters they book get bombed, a massive inconvenience.
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Attractions and repulsion
This not-quite-titan of the stage still draws different personalities toward him. They all want a piece of him because he has taken a chunk out of them; they need him for their own ends and resent the need. And he resents them this burden while luxuriating in having it, gladly taking of them the lives that they offer. He bends them—his lover, his long-time stage manager, his fellow actors—to his will, and they bend gladly, resentfully, regretfully. The relationships are a mix of attraction and repulsion, and somewhere in the gaps one sometimes finds love.
The most important relationship is that between Sir and his loyal dresser, Norman, who attends to the actor with the unstinting devotion of a great nanny. If Sir is Lear, Norman is the king’s fool: his comrade, confidant, therapist, cheerleader, errand boy, and punching bag. He pleads, he cajoles, he scolds. He offers bribes of tea, sweets, a nip of brandy. So devoted is he that he even saves his rations for Sir. It takes a mighty effort to get Sir physically and, more importantly, emotionally ready to perform.
The action begins with the actor-manager offstage, in a hospital, because of what seems to be a panic attack. Norman and stage manager Madge consider cancelling the night’s performance, which is to begin in an hour. Then he arrives, curmudgeonly as always, and begins preparing for the show. He swings from bouts of fear and terrible anxiety to vainglorious swaggering. The rest of the play takes us through the night, from the arduous preparation to the first act (which begins as air raid sirens sound in the distance), the interval, the second act, and the end, all while characters swirl in and around this little maelstrom kept far from view of the public.
As backstage dramas do (Shakespeare in Loveand Meeting Venus come to my mind), The Dresser exposes the amusing foibles of theater people. “Civilians won’t understand,” Sir’s lover says of their pre-show crisis, as if they were some special breed of humanity.
Such insider amusements also depict the theatrical enterprise as fraught with danger. Like Sir’s mental health, it all seems so fragile, always on the verge of collapse. Conceding is always a temptation for this motley crew. (Talk of canceling the show on account of Sir’s condition erupts every now and then, and at one point his lover begs Sir to retire after this night. Of course he refuses.) The wonder is that when it begins (well, after a hiccup over Sir’s first entrance) it goes swimmingly. We never see the stage itself, only the light that wafts from it to the darkness of backstage. But the audience (“It’s a full house!” Norman tells Sir, to rouse him from his gloom) showers the cast with fulsome applause, and it seems all has been well.
Nothing speaks of the fragility of the theatrical enterprise like Ed Lacson’s set. There are no walls, merely the suggestion of them. Door frames stand freely. Rusting pipes snake across the stage, behind and above the performers. Everything is worn and faded, like the paint on Sir’s door or the cloudy glass of its casement window. Only his room is brightly lit; beyond it lies the formless shadow of backstage corridors. Danger lies always just outside.
The lively, often funny proceedings thinly mask the sadness underlying it, namely that art is the flimsiest, most disposable, most nonsensical of luxuries. Actors are foolish dreamers, insensible to the needs of the world around them (Sir recounts to Norman how his father wanted him to be a shipbuilder, as he was, but he refused and lost his father’s love), yet are its beating heart, existing where life is most vividly lived. Somehow the work is essential, necessary (as foolish and courageous, say, as Susan Sontag staging Beckett’s Waiting for Godotin war-torn Sarajevo before the fighting ended.) Perhaps the thunderbolts of blank verse Lear hurls against the heavens is mankind’s best response to the blunt power of bombs.
The artistic team
Standing at the helm of this production is Loy Arcenas, long-time scenic designer and director for the stage here and in the US (his Golden Childfor Tanghalang Pilipino in 2008 remains etched in my brain) and also a film director (most notably of the acclaimed Larawan). He tempers the performances well, getting each pitched at the right register, and finds a good balance of humor and pathos, exuberance and melancholy.
Crucial to the success of this story is the performance of its two leads, and it’s hard to imagine Rep finding a better, heavier-hitting pair.
Teroy Guzman has carved out an impressive career highlighted by his turns as Shakespeare’s heroes; already he has been Othello, Macbeth, Lear, and Richard the Third. Seeing him play Sir, the aged actor raging against the dying of the light, is this production’s greatest pleasure. He has no need to reach the towering heights of his performance as Haring Lear for PETA, but in this role he gets to show greater breadth and nuance. He slides easily from mood to mood, from sullen silence to grandiloquent speechifying, from childishness to magnanimity. Sir looks on the verge of losing control because Guzman never is. My only quibble is that, as with his Lear, Guzman comes off as too youthful, too full of vitality to be the frail manager-actor at the end of his rope.
Like Guzman, I thought Audie Gemora, a stalwart of musical theater, too young for his part. A small matter, this, since Gemora adroitly manages the delicate balance of being indispensable to Sir without appearing so. Frumped up with slacks, sweater-vest, and multi-pocketed apron, he is irrepressibly helpful because he has no trouble parking his ego at the door. These are two heavyweights of the Philippine stage, and their scenes in Sir’s dressing room, in their tug-of-war–slash–pas-de-deux, were the show’s best thrills.
This actor’s showcase isn’t just for the leads, though. Around these two large figures of the local stage orbit a small wealth of sure-handed veterans who produce harmonious ensemble work.
If no man is a hero to his valet, neither is he one to his lover, played here with suitable iciness by Missy Maramara. Addressed as Her Ladyship (actors are big on illusions), she cuts him down to size, accusing him of gross selfishness (he never left his wife for fear of losing his chance at the knighthood he desired). A word about Maramara: One of my regrets about taking a three-year break from writing about theater is that I didn’t remark on Maramara’s stunning turn in the one-woman play Ang Dalagita’y ’Sang Bagay na Di Buofor Dulaang UP early in 2018. For nearly two hours she played alone on stage, shape-shifting into different characters telling a harrowing story. It was easily one of the handful of most vivid performances I have had the good fortune of witnessing.
Tami Monsod’s stage manager, Madge, is the stern, businesslike taskmaster who reveals a surprising tenderness at a crucial moment. As Jeoffrey, Jaime del Mundo begins as embarrassed, shy, a small-timer thrust into a larger role he isn’t ready for—then turns more assertive, requesting larger roles of Sir after all is done. Jeremy Domingo’s Oxenby is proud, standoffish; he refuses to help out with the sound effects of the storm scene when asked (the troupe is short-handed) but relents when the time comes. Justine Narciso is the only newcomer, having made her debut on the professional stage with Rep last year; she plays the ingenue Irene, young but already worldly-wise, ready to do dangerous things to further her career.
Perhaps the only downer in this affair is the use of accents. True, the story is set in London in the 1940s, and English society is a class-conscious one where your speech is a clear signifier of your place in the social hierarchy. But the audience is Manila in the 2010s. There really is no need to try to sound like a Brit. Putting on an accent feels like an empty gesture at realism; it puts mimicry above truthfulness, a wrongheaded sacrifice productions of English-language plays sometimes make. Gemora’s accent in particular, which I take to be his attempt to show Norman to be Sir’s social inferior, was occasionally troublesome. It got in the way of the performer’s clarity and, I suspect, his expressiveness.
A tender tribute
Harwood’s The Dresser, given stirring life by Repertory Philippines, is a behind-the-curtain story that is ultimately a tender tribute to the theater and the people who devote their lives to it. Their foibles are ours, their strength and weakness utterly familiar. They are every inch flawed human beings. “You’re in a theater, safe and sound,” one character reassures another. It could have been meant as well for the audience, who is indeed safe and sound in the embrace of this skillful production about the people who make fools of themselves in order to play dress-up and tell stories, like the one about the mad king who rails at the heavens, even as the bombs fall.
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The Dresser runs until May 26 at the Onstage Theatre, Greenbelt 1, Makati.
Photographs from Repertory Philippines' Facebook account