Any work of art that is about the making of the same form of art runs the risk of being self-celebratory and insular at best, and chasing its own tail at worst. How then to explain St. Louis Actors' Studio's current production of The Dresser, which last weekend drew a nearly full house to a Sunday matinee? Ronald Harwood's 1980 drama is a tribute to touring companies, actors and the creation of theater, but it wasn't an industry crowd in those seats.
Harwood's encomium to the theater world draws crowds because of the fraught relationship between Sir, an aging Shakespearean worn out by life on the road, and Norman, his loyal and dauntless dresser. Thanks to Bobby Miller's sensitive, loving direction and a pair of rip-snorting performances by John Contini and David Wassilak, respectively, this starkly beautiful production is worth celebrating.
Sir and Norman spark off one another like dueling swordsmen, feinting and striking as opportunity allows. This is a fight for life, not a battle to the death, although only one combatant knows it. Norman attempts to get Sir out on stage for another performance of King Lear, and nothing will stand in his way: Not Sir's wife, nor the house manager, nor the German air raid currently bombing the town around the theater, and not even Sir's own belief that his will has broken.
John Contini brings a haunting desperation to Sir, a man who has spent 40 years on the road bringing Shakespeare to the smallest towns in England. His life is a guttering candle, and even his frequent attempts to write his own autobiography are for naught. The pages end up on the floor, "my life crumbled up around me," he says in horror.
Norman attempts to fan that candle back into blazing life by cajoling Sir through his usual pre-show routine of makeup and wig, addressing the cast and being reminded what his first line is. Norman is fussy, passive-aggressive and prone to reciting long anecdotes about various friends who were debilitated by loneliness or mental illness but were ultimately saved by pressing on through it.
The more you watch Wassilak's performance, the more you suspect that Norman has ceased caring about Sir and has become numb to his many complaints, just as he is immune to the actor's spiteful attacks. Wassilak walks a careful line; you're never sure if he cares too little or too much. Their relationship has calcified into something strange; is it symbiotic or parasitic?
Muddying the matter are the obvious parallels to the relationship between King Lear and his Fool. Sir is confused and raging against the world and punishing his extended family of cast and crew, just as Lear does his own daughters and court; the Fool tempers the sting of Lear's words and deeds, but eventually gives up and disappears when Lear is too far gone to save. Thus far Norman has remained by his king's side, but it doesn't bode well for Norman.
Even if you've seen either of the film adaptations of Harwood's play, you may be surprised by the outcome here. Sir says, "I hate the cinema. I prefer living things," and Wassilak and Sir prove the value of theater again and again. The Dresser is alive, magnificently so. Hail the baleful king and his knowing fool.