MANILA -- You are in the backstage of an old theater somewhere in England. Overhead lights shake along with rusty pipes as bombs drop onto the city outside. You hear static laced broadcasts about the Nazi and Allied troop movements as the lights flicker inside the grimy backstage.
Welcome to the world of "The Dresser," where the show must go on even when all hell is breaking loose in and around the theater.
One of the most-awaited productions of Repertory Philippines this year, Ronald Harwood’s ode to the stage features a powerhouse cast of theater veterans ably directed by the multi-awarded Loy Arcenas.
Norman (Audie Gemora) is the overly stressed but ever-loyal assistant of Sir (Teroy Guzman), a brilliant actor who has seen better days and who’s delusional, drunk, and befuddled for most of the play. It is up to Norman to manage a company, who has had enough of Sir’s spoiled shenanigans, and make sure that the night’s production of "King Lear" goes on, in spite of being in the middle of wartime England.
Guzman, known for his fiery Shakespearean portrayals, plays Sir with much vulnerability in spite of the character’s arrogance. He gets to have his explosive outbursts, but is quickly reined in for more nuanced scenes befitting a world-weary character. Needing to protect Sir from the rest of the company and himself, Gemora’s Norman toes the line between a patronizing babysitter and a neurotic assistant.
Sometimes played to laughter from the audience and sometimes to uncomfortable silence, it’s this prickly master-servant that’s at the center of Harwood’s play.
Gemora and Guzman are backed by veterans of the Philippine stage who prove that there certainly are no small parts in theater.
Missy Maramara plays Sir’s hapless wife. Just referred to as “Her Ladyship,” she’s part of the touring theater company and who's on the edge of walking out because of Sir’s abusive ways. Tami Monsod’s Madge is the company’s stern stage manager who seems to be Sir’s loudest critic but adds a hint of tenderness showing some sort of misplaced concern.
A barely recognizable Jeremy Domingo plays bit player Oxenby. This gruff actor complains and says a lot but still pulls through at the end. Jaime Del Mundo’s Geoffrey is another bit player who seems to be stuck as the Fool in "King Lear." But in his one scene, Del Mundo effortlessly transforms into an English everyman looking for bigger roles complete with speaking ticks and accent.
A fresh face in the cast is Justine Narciso. Her Irene is a young ingenue who sees Sir as a shortcut to a brighter star in the theater.
Ed Lacson Jr.’s set contributes to Arcenas’s dark, dreary, and decrepit vision of a theater in chaos. Sir’s dressing room is brightly lit in the left foreground. Crumbling walls let the audience see shadows darting about in the backstage. Clever use of the Onstage wires and pipes contribute to the industrial bareness of the set. At the same time, the use of the right side as the immediate backstage captures the pressure and stress of actors about to go in before their cues. The whole set shakes and shudders in sync with bombs going off around the theater during a German air raid. The set deserves to be a character in its own right.
There are moments of physical comedy that liven up an otherwise gloomy work. There’s that sequence where Norman dresses up Sir into King Lear that really shows the bond between both men. There are the confrontations backstage between Norman and various members of the company that show off the dresser’s parental protectiveness towards Sir.
There’s also the staging of "King Lear" where the audience just sees the actors backstage waiting for their cues, or doing old school sound effects with corrugated sheets and timpani. All these contribute to this world Arcenas envisioned for this play.
"The Dresser" is a rather serious work that deals with love and legacy. Through the relationships in the play, one can really go into serious reflection about the things we do, who we do them for, and ultimately, why they’re done. As with Norman’s personal crisis of letting the show go on while playing humble lackey to an egomaniac, one should ask if the stories that are told are worth telling before it is too late.
I thought that "The Dresser" won’t be for everybody considering its serious tone and its gloomy outlook. However, serious theater buffs will definitely appreciate Arcenas’ technical craftmanship, and the brilliant acting by the cast led by Gemora and Guzman. This production has its own bleak beauty that merits introspective thought about love and legacy after watching it.
Repertory Philippines’ production of Ronald Harwood’s "The Dresser" runs until May 26 at the OnStage Theater at Greenbelt 1 in Makati City.