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Review: THE DRESSER - Different Stages Perfect Gem Shines

Review: THE DRESSER - Different Stages Perfect Gem Shines

THE DRESSER by Ronald Harwood is a powerful piece by itself, but in the hands of Different Stages it is a rare and perfect gem.

Premiering in 1980 on both the West End and Broadway, THE DRESSER has been made into two movies featuring some of the best actors of our time, Ian McKellen and Anthony Hopkins are in the 2015 film. The story, set during the Blitz in London, centers on Norman (Norman Blumensaadt) a theatrical dresser for aging Shakespearean actor Sir (Ev Lunning). Sir's company of actors are performing the Bard's greatest tragedies across England to keep spirits up during one of the darkest times in their history. While air raid sirens scream and bombs fall, the real drama unfolds in Sir's backstage dressing room, where Norman cajoles and bullies the leading actor on stage for a performance of King Lear. Though exhausted and clearly confused, Sir goes through the motions of preparing for a performance, a routine anyone who has ever been on stage will find very familiar. Sir's wife, Her Ladyship (Katherine Schroeder) and Madge (Paula Gilbert) the stage manager do their utmost to let Sir rest and cancel the performance for tonight. But Norman will hear none of it, his nearly frenzied efforts to see his boss go through the show are, in a word, driven. The play itself is a fascinating character study, punctuated with vicious insults hurled by professionals in the game. Gripping, entertaining and haunting, throughout the two hour performance.

Different Stages, helmed by Norman Blumensaadt, has produced some of the best shows in Austin for 36 years, always brings forth a mixture of theatrical classics alongside surprising gems like EURYDICE, THE LANGUAGE ARCHIVE and WHEN THE RAIN STOPS FALLING. One of the many companies without a permanent venue, Different Stages has the knack of finding the right show for the time and space. Granted, lots of production companies do this well, but Norman Blumensaadt has been doing it, successful show after show for nearly 40 years, he must be doing something right. THE DRESSER is full of laughs and inside jokes for theatre folks, with some especially scathing lines directed at critics.

Different Stages' production hits every note and builds a world within an actor's dressing room that has vibrancy and depth. Director Bob Tolaro finds the heart of the show and gets the utmost out of his actors, his blocking is flawless and inspired. As the play progresses Lunning must apply makeup for his transformation into Lear and it is a sheer wonder to watch this marriage of direction and acting. The entire cast is excellent, though this is basically a two-hander between Norman and Sir, they flesh out the smaller roles as well. Katherine Schroeder is brilliant as Her Ladyship, pitch perfect in her accent and portrayal; her love for Sir tempered in equal measure with worry and exasperation. Paula Gilbert's stage manager, Madge is all business with her underlying secret love just below the surface. But it's Lunning and Blumensaadt that are near perfection together. Their repartee is spot on and never lags for a moment. Lunning is superior as the aging actor, his fits of doubt and confusion, touching and real. As the title character, Blumensaadt is the heart of the show, pushing and pulling Sir because the 'show must go on'. If there is any flaw in the production, it's that the British accents (with the exception of Schroeder) are not as crisp as they could be. The set design by Ann Marie Gordon is just wonderful, reminding me of every backstage dressing room I've ever been in. Lighting by Bill Peeler is magnificent, illuminating the onstage and offstage areas perfectly while giving us the feel of a dank London theatre during WWII. Jeff Miller's sound design is of particular note, the sounds from the radio, the stage and the bombs are outstanding. Costumes by Ann Ford are gorgeous, rich and sumptuous and fitting the period of 1940's Shakespearean performance vogue as well as the wartime fashion of London.

I give my highest recommendation to Different Stages, THE DRESSER currently playing at The Vortex. It's a brilliant show performed by an outstanding company, you'll enjoy every moment.

by Ronald Harwood
Different Stages at The Vortex, 2307 Manor Rd, Austin

June 23 - July 15

Running Time: 2 hours with one 10 minute intermission

Tickets: $15 - $30,

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