The Dresser by Ronald Harwood, currently running at The Center for Performing Arts in Rhinebeck, offers a behind-the-curtain of an aged actor (Lou Trapani) and devoted dresser (Kevin Archambault). More than a cursory peek, this play portrays the torments of those committed to acting at its most profound level. While admitting the narcissistic angle of the profession, the play seeks to place catharsis not on stage but in the hearts of the audience.
As one of those crippled intellects, corrupted by witty word-trade, and jealousy of those who can really write or act for the stage, I, like the actors confess my limitations, but my limitations fall more toward the error of praise and wonder than anything a depraved social huckster might conjure. Yes, the play’s the thing if you want to examine the schizophrenia of not only the lead actor but the dedicated masochism that lurks behind the mischievous shenanigans that one so enjoys. Are actors mad? Is King Lear crazy? Yes, but with a twist: they plumb the depths of the human tragedy and the mystery of identity amid the slings and arrows of life, as well as its tawdry misbegotten dreams.
The play highlights the subservient, sacrificial role of those behind the curtain, especially the dresser of the lead actor. The dialogue sails with wit, recirculating irony, and dagger-like honesty. Direction by Michael Juzwak offers brisk pacing amid the marvelous timbre of subtle voice intonation between excited and manic Archambault with morose and disorientated Trapani. Set design by Richard Prouse remains as gorgeous as it is serviceable. The gauze curtain technique of seeing the actors act from backstage provides an ingenious experience.
Archambault and Trapani dominated the production through voice and nuanced mime. Elaine Young as Her Ladyship might be less austere in the first of the two acts. Emily DePew, as the underappreciated stage manager (a job I once undertook), was forceful in her “villainous” role. Emily McCarthy was airily adroit as the pseudo-modest scheming actress with an ambitious head, yet not sure of her talent. Lobsang Camacho was, as usual, magical with costumes, which were a central aspect of the play. Trapani was so good either in or out of costume, it was a cumbersome bother to weigh that distinction. The angry pathos of Archambault as the cheery dresser delivers echoing irony.
A splendid aspect of this play is that it pretends most of the time to be about surface, yet the mad Lear-like moments break through, freighting pathos and terror with sudden whiplash. Yes, a spring breeze is now blowing in the air and now is the time to step more outdoors and aerate your claustrophobic winterly brain with a little levity and tragedy in the company of accomplished thespians. There is local talent here and there is no reason to miss it.
The Dresser has a short two-week run as part of the Sam Scripps Annual Shakespeare Festival at the Center. From April 5 to 14, the Center will perform Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, one of the Bard’s most notable comedies.