Blinded By The (Spot)Light: A Review of Repertory’s 'The Dresser'
Running at the Onstage Greenbelt until the 26th of May is Repertory Philippines' staging of Ronald Harwood’s The Dresser, directed by Loy Arcenas. It’s a backstage play that has a very rich provenance. Staged for the first time in 1980, it was turned into a film in 1983, garnering Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for its lead stars, Tom Courtenay and Albert Finney, with Courtenay sharing the Golden Globe Best Actor in a Drama with Robert Duvall (for Tender Mercies). Fast forward to 2015, and a BBC film adaptation was aired with none other than Ian McKellan taking on the role of Norman, the dresser/personal assistant/alalay to aging actor and head of his own theater company, Sir (Anthony Hopkins).
It’s a backstage play because literally the whole play takes place in the 1940's backstage dressing room of a theater; and in a nifty piece of stage design, at the backstage wings of the theater––so what happens on stage in the play, is offstage to us, the audience. Thematically, it follows the travails and tribulations of the dresser Norman, as he attends to Sir, a dictatorial, egotistical, long-in-the-tooth actor who is on his last legs, but doesn’t seem to know it. Thus, it highlights devoting oneself to the theater and to its craft; whether as a star performer working under the floodlights, or as one of the essentials toiling backstage.
Audie Gemora takes on the role of Norman, the dresser, and Teroy Guzman essays the role of Sir. Missy Maramara is Her Ladyship, Sir’s “wife,” Tami Monsod is Madge the stage manager, Justine Narciso as Irene the ingenue, Jaime Del Mundo as Geoffrey, and Jeremy Domingo as Oxenby, rounding out the cast. And quite honestly, watching Audie Gemora ‘inhabit’ Norman would be the single most compelling reason for catching The Dresser.
Audie is magnificent; playing the devoted, subservient service-provider one moment, then aided by a nip of alcohol, getting all chummy and comfortable, rising above his station the next. The disregard for self in the name of his love for theater and being enthralled by Sir, is a sight to behold; and the arc of his character, as he is forced to confront the minuscule regard that Sir has for Norman’s years of service, is fascinating to watch. It begins with a slight raise of the eyebrow, a muttered “sotto voce” aside, and later in the play, all-out outrage and despair. You mix all this with what’s transpiring on stage; and you can say that the Lear and Othello that Sir performs for his audience, can sit right beside the back-of-house tragedy that is Norman.
Teroy Guzman gives us imperial, bombastic, and deluded Sir with the right amount of fury and self-absorption. Sir is the sort of man who puts his ego ahead of his fellow men or women. He’s missed the boat though, and now suffers having to bring his troupe of actors to small theaters, and performing while air raids are going on. If I have to criticize the treatment of this adaptation, I would have to say we could have had more moments of vulnerability; of Sir’s bewilderment at the onset of dementia or senility, that lies at the core of Norman and Her Ladyship worrying about him. We have those, and it’s hinted at, but it’s overshadowed by his bluster and “sound and fury.”
In the end though, one goes back to Audie and his Norman. With the stage career and memorable portrayals that Audie has amassed through the years, it’s awfully hard, and even unfair, to single out performances; but I have to say, this is one I really love and salute him for. It’s the field mouse, the little David, the forever neglected one, the alalay, being placed under the microscope; and Audie humanizes this Norman without making him step out of character. The long suppressed frustrations, the inner workings, the self-delusion and dissembling, the craven need for a morsel of recognition and appreciation––they’re all in Audie’s Norman.
Photos from Repertory Philippines