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Saturday, March 01, 2014

Virtuoso Acting on Display in 'The Dresser'

Bruce Nelson (l.), Carl Schurr and Deborah Hazlett
It’s not surprising that stellar actors Bruce R. Nelson and Carl Schurr would click so well in The Dresser, a well-balanced dramatic and humorous play, which is currently on stage at the Everyman Theatre.  They have a long string of theatrical successes under their belts with Mr. Nelson, a local favorite, capturing a Helen Hayes Award among other honors.  These Everyman resident company members formed an extraordinary duo and gave what some could rightly call an acting clinic as the two leads in Ronald Harwood’s play.
The Dresser opened on London’s West End in 1980 and then on Broadway in 1981 where it ran for 200 performances.  It was made into a movie in 1983.  Harwood’s work was inspired by his own personal experience as a dresser to Shakespearean actor-manager Sir Donald Wolfit.  But The Dresser is neither autobiographical nor biographical.

It’s the story of an aging British Shakespearian actor-manager, Sir, (Schurr) whose faculties have been steadily deteriorating.  Sir’s lifeline besides his wife, Her Ladyship, played by Deborah Hazlett, has been his personal dresser, Norman (Nelson), a somewhat effeminate and loyal servant to Sir, catering to his every whim. 
Sir is the domineering lead actor of a ragtag touring troupe of Shakespearian actors who must perform in the British provinces amidst the bombs from German aircraft during the Blitz.  Never wanting to be upstaged, the one-time great actor is often tyrannical and hardly ever satisfied with the other actors’ performances.    

The weary Sir is preparing to don his triple crown in King Lear for the 227th time, yet he is challenged to remember which play he is performing in, much less his opening lines.  Norman, his rock for 16 years—doting after Sir, boosting his confidence, adjusting his costumes and make-up, massaging him and otherwise caring for him as if he were his lover—convinces Sir to perform one more time.   He not only had to struggle to persuade Sir who is sensing his own mortality, but did so over the objections of Her Ladyship and Madge, the stage manager (Megan Anderson).  They want him to forego this performance and retire altogether. 
But Norman, whose own existence is tied to Sir’s career and becomes a powerful force when this relationship is challenged, prevails. You see, Sir needs Norman but not quite as much as Norman needs Sir in this symbiotic relationship.  Sir is Norman’s life—dutifully serving the dominating Sir between nips of brandy.
As bombs and air raid sirens blast outside the theater, Sir reluctantly steps on stage to deliver one of his best performances as King Lear for what was to be yet another curtain call.  I will refrain from divulging what unfolds hence, but be assured the play packs a powerful dramatic conclusion.

Yet, for all the dramatic moments, the play’s clever wit shines through and through.  Veteran Director Derek Goldman is blessed with a highly skilled cast and crew to maximize this story of loyalty, dedication, love and the human spirit and guides the production with a steady hand. 
Bruce R. Nelson, as he so often does, pulls out all the stops, employing varied voice inflections, mannerisms, body language and gestures in the role of Norman.  His comic timing is also spot on as he delivers one witty retort after another.  Norman’s devotion to his master Sir is the foundation for his performance that included a display of jealousy during a fiery confrontation with Irene (Emily Vere Nicoll), the youngest actor in the troupe who allowed Sir to have a physical encounter with her.

Carl Schurr as the once great but ailing Sir is riveting.  Moving ploddingly, speaking softly until his authoritative persona needs to come through, Mr. Schurr convincingly takes on Sir’s complex character.  He also delivers a number of amusing lines—even some with gallows humor about the war and sickness—bringing the audience to laughter.
Together, Mr. Nelson and Mr. Schurr form an impressive acting duo whereby each action, gesture and spoken word is blended in perfect harmony.  Deborah Hazlett’s performance as Her Ladyship is also proficient in allowing the audience to believe that Norman is more able to reach Sir than she could at this stage of their relationship.
Photos by ClintonBPhotography
The other actors Megan Anderson as Madge, Emily Vere Nicoll as Irene, Will Love as Geoffrey Thornton, James Whalen as Mr. Oxenby and the remainder of the ensemble, James Bunzli, Will Cooke, Benjamin Lovell and Frank Tesoro Vince provided the leads with strong support.
 James Fouchard was meticulous in designing the set, with its stage lighting fixtures and high brick walls to depict the backstage of a 1942 theater in the English provinces.  Most of the scenes take place in Sir’s dressing room, which is brought out on stage via a turntable to the audience’s left side. 

Unfortunately, that positioning put the Everyman audience seated on the right side of the theater at a slight disadvantage.  The center of the stage is used for the actors to walk to and from the dressing room’s door and later during the King Lear play within the play.
Nonetheless, the dressing room set was so detailed and complete one would think that it was Sir’s flat.  In a way it is surprising that the room contained such accoutrements as bookshelves, a stove, photographs, and an assortment of knick-knacks along with the standard desk and sofa given that this is a touring company—not one that took up a more long-term residence.  One indication that this room is a temporary setting: the open trunk at the side of the sofa.  Regardless, the set is splendidly designed and serves as a great backdrop to where most of the dialogue takes place.

Sound designer Chad Marsh also excels.  The booming sounds from bombs and air raid sirens made the theater vibrate lending stark reality to what is transpiring outside.  When cast member were using thunder sheets, drums and other devices to depict a storm scene in King Lear, they had to beat these instruments even harder to drown out the sounds of bombs—a chilling effect.
The creative team as a whole backs up a solid cast.  With The Dresser, one is sure to enjoy a potent story with sufficient opportunities to chuckle and to witness a pair of sterling actors working brilliantly at their craft.

Running time: Two hours and 20 minutes with an intermission.
The Dresser runs through March 23 at the Everyman Theatre, 315 E. Fayette St., Baltimore 21201.  Tickets may be purchased by calling 410-752-2208 or online.

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