In the grand tradition of theatre past, Theatre Tulsa celebrated the old cliché "The show must go on" with The Dresser, which opened last Friday in the Liddy Doenges Theater of the Tulsa Performing Arts Center, 110 E. 2nd St.
Through air raids, enormous egos and the impending end of an era, The Dresser, a.k.a. Norman (David Virilli), must get "Sir" (George Nelson) ready for his 227th performance of King Lear. Unfortunately, Sir is making it, um, difficult for Norman. As of late, he's been feeling a little "under the weather."
Ronald Harwood wrote The Dresser in the early 1980s. It is an exaggeration of the life of Sir Donald Wolfit, arguably one of England's greatest Shakespearean actors. Harwood served as his dresser for five years, and, though he denies it, it is widely thought that he based The Dresser on their relationship.
In his time, Wolfit was the director, producer and star of every Shakespearean saga his company performed and The Dresser's Sir is likewise.
As the play opens, Norman and Sir's lover and near-wife, Her Ladyship (Melissa Childs), are discussing Sir's whereabouts, which are unknown. After making a ruckus in the marketplace, Sir was taken to the hospital by officials, where he was diagnosed with exhaustion, being in a state of collapse. While Her Ladyship--and another caretaker, Madge (Susan Webb)--believe the evening's performance should be canceled, Norman, in the name of tradition, refuses. It would be the first time the company ever canceled a production.
When Sir enters, unannounced, he is downcast and discombobulated. He discharged himself from the hospital, and, he says, he is ready to go on.
The Dresser makes a frantic effort to ready Sir for his role as King Lear. Their employer/employee relationship is more like a bad love affair, both of them codependent, one relying on the other for his own self gratification. Sir needs the Dresser to stroke his ego, to applaud his every effort, to relate made-up raving reviews of every performance.
And the Dresser needs Sir to validate his existence as well. Without Sir to please, without that ego to stroke, Norman's life seems meaningless. And, with a swig from his flask, he is ready to get to work, to prepare Sir for the stage.
Sir, though, needs help remembering the beginning lines of the play he is to perform in under an hour. In fact, he is having a difficult time remembering what play he is to perform. It is only by Norman's shear sweat and effort that he makes it to the stage at all. And it is only by the power of his own ego that he has held the company together as long as he has.
It exists purely as a celebration of his stardom.
Her Ladyship is pleading with him to put an end to the company already, and the rest of its members are rubbish. Sir, though, is determined to finally, actually, be knighted and to be remembered as one of England's finest actors, taking his company from the provincial ramshackle theaters in which it currently entertains to more notable venues.
The play is character-driven, Harwood's dialogue lightheartedly humorous and its content quite familiar to those who have some experience in the theater.
Virilli was fantastic as Norman, stealing every scene in which he was a part, which was fitting for the play's title character. Nelson, Childs and Webb also shone when they were allowed. Childs and Webb's performances were almost effortless, and Nelson, though perhaps not playing the character Harwood intended, definitely gave Sir a complex portrayal. The cast also includes Adrian Alexander, Rusty Hockenberry, Alexandra Poole, Brian Elsberry and George Spelvin. Jim Queen directs.
At times childlike, at others an asshole, Nelson played Sir as an obnoxious, narcissistic old man. But because his mind wanders so, it's somewhat hard to take him seriously as a great English actor. But, then, perhaps that's the point.
Virilli is naturally funny, nearly flamboyant and, of course, narcissistic and selfish in his own right. And he is by far the best thing about The Dresser. At times smartly humorous, at others silly and still others downright boring (yes, there were some middle parts that I wished would hurry up already), The Dresser was still more. At the end, it is more. It has its touching moment, its moral-of-the-story moment that, at the end, made it seem like the whole play was as good as the last 10 minutes.
The Dresser continues this weekend, Nov. 29 through Dec. 1, with performances at 8pm. Tickets are $12-17.50.
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