By Sujata S. Mukhi

Theater Review
The Dresser
Directed by Loy Arcenas
Presented by Repertory Philippines
Fridays to Sundays until May 26
Onstage Theatre, Greenbelt 1
Paseo de Roxas St., Makati City

WE WERE talking with a balikbayan friend about an upcoming musical, and she assumed it was by a foreign touring company. I said that it was a local theater group that was producing it. “Are they any good?” she casually asked. “The local groups?”

“Be still my pounding heart” I thought as I was hard-pressed to give a civil answer to what I believed was an impertinent question. In a more rational moment I realized that it was just an ignorant one.

That musical is yet to happen. But I wish I could put Repertory Philippines’ The Dresser on a platter, present it to my friend with fiery flourish and say, “Behold this. It is good. It is all good.”

The moment Norman the Dresser (Audie Gemora) engages in the opening dialogue with her Ladyship (Missy Maramara), you realize that you are attending a Master Class for Actors, by Actors who have been spun, molded, and fired by their own theatrical experiences. They stand on that stage, owning it. It is sheer joy as an audience member to succumb to the whole of a play that is much, much greater than the sum of any one part of this very tight ensemble.

The Dresser is a veiled biography of playwright Ronald Harwood’s own experience as a dresser to renowned Shakespearean actor Sir Donald Wolfit. It is a homage to the grit and grace required to put together the nuts and bolts to do theater, the behind-the-scenes of the mise-en-scène, the breakdowns before the breakthroughs of a compelling performance.

The core of the play is the relationship between Sir (Teroy Guzman), a fading star running a now bedraggled theater company, and Norman, who has been Sir’s valet-servant-assistant-man Friday for decades. The company revolves around Sir’s tyranny. More so Norman whose entire life pivots around servicing Sir. He knows Sir’s habits, moods, quirks, and follies, and waits for morsels of acknowledgment and appreciation from his Master.

The play opens to a frantic dressing room scene as Norman and Sir’s co-actor and nameless partner, known in the play only as her Ladyship, have to decide whether to push through with their touring company’s production of King Lear that evening. Sir, essaying the titular role, is indisposed and in hospital, having had an anxiety attack earlier that morning. It’s an hour before the house opens in wartime London in the early 1940s. Norman insists that they continue, as the company has never ever canceled a show in the past.

Sir discharges himself against doctor’s orders and appears in his dressing room declaring that there will be a performance that night, much to the consternation of her Ladyship, and stage manager Madge (Tami Monsod). Sir prepares for the performance, but in between bouts of memory distortion and amnesia, he puts on blackface for Othello, cannot remember the first line of King Lear, then spouts a mash-up of the most famous Shakespearean monologues. Norman gives him moral support, regaling him with lighthearted stories to get Sir out of his dark mood and to focus on the performance at hand.

So amidst air raid alarms, panic attacks, undermanned production staff, uncharacteristic stage fright, a tipple or two, muddled lines, a distractingly flirtatious fan girl, and one of the most scathing digs at theater critics, the show does go on. After a hilarious struggle to get Sir onstage, with — horrors! — Shakespeare’s dialogue improvised to cover a late entrance cue, Sir struts onward and forward as King Lear, reprising the role for the 227th time in his career.

We don’t actually see the King Lear production. But we do see the goings-on backstage as Norman shakes aluminum sheets to recreate the sound of thunder, Madge gives cues for the next bit of action, Oxenby (Jeremy Domingo) makes the wind machine blow while ingénue Irene (Justine Narciso) beats the drums of war. Her Ladyship plays Cordelia and Geoffrey (Jaime del Mundo) plays King Lear’s fool.

That backstage scene is excellently executed, with blinking lights, sound cues and stage business running like clockwork. You have to remind yourself that these are actors onstage roleplaying stage hands.

It’s the tautness and economy of delivery that rivets. Mr. Gemora inhabits Norman like a second skin, alternately shrewd and loving, resentful and attentive. His lashing out towards the end when he realizes that he is excluded from Sir’s circle of appreciation is utterly sad. Mr. Gemora plays the role with an effeminacy that may stereotypically suggest that he was gay and in love with Sir. But I find that actually quite irrelevant. Do we all not know of that caregiver or son or daughter or spouse or assistant that is left untethered when the one they have served for most of their life is gone? That was more the sense I got from his interpretation, rather than as a man in love with his master.

Mr. Guzman is a larger-than-life actor, I always look forward to watching him onstage. Sir is a man in love with himself, and is also full of doubt and recrimination. Mr. Guzman navigates Sir’s demons with an exhausted frustration.

There is an exquisite scene between her Ladyship and Sir when she accuses him of putting his ambition first to gain Knighthood over his marriage to her. Ms. Maramara, a prolific actor that has surprisingly just debuted on this Rep stage, keeps a controlled fury. Maintaining a foreign accent is not easy, but it is easy to overlook this as she brings such dynamism to her Ladyship’s relationship with Sir.

The one with the most unconditional love for Sir is Madge, played with a steady intensity that can be expected from any performance from Ms. Monsod. She is all business at first, very similar to her role as the Nurse in the first half of The Vibrator Play. But in a critical scene with Sir that involves the wrong kind of ring, the pain and hurt she emits is actually even more palpable than that of Norman’s betrayal and isolation.

But it’s Jaime del Mundo’s role as Geoffrey that struck me more than I thought it would, given that it was secondary. He first enters Sir’s dressing room in the Fool’s costume and unrecognizable makeup, barely uttering “Yes” and “No” in a low, muffled tone with deadpan expression. Whether Mr. Del Mundo intended to or not, he steals the scene because he is so so funny. When Geoffrey confesses to Sir in a later scene his secret ambition to take on bigger roles, Mr. Del Mundo’s entire demeanor, of hesitant revelation of his desire, to looking for Sir’s affirmation, is spot on.

In the after-show Q&A, director Loy Arcenas, fresh from his award-winning film Larawan, shared that he opted for a more collaborative way of working with his actors. He set it up so the characterizations would organically emerge and he had several readings of the script before actual staging. That has paid off handsomely. Set Designer Ed Lacson, Jr. pulls off a richly detailed dressing room where all of Sir’s key interactions take place. What is a dresser after all without a real dressing room. The sound design and period costumes squarely set the play in wartime England.

The Dresser as a play is text heavy, and as layered as ambivalent relationships are. This production deserved the treatment it got: with some of the best actors in Philippine theater who, to paraphrase Sir, will live on in the memory of many many others. But wait, not yet. May there be many many more roles for them to come before they get relegated to memory!

Tickets to The Dresser are available through TicketWorld (891-9999, and at the gate.