By a curious coincidence, two plays about washed-up Shakespearean actors are running concurrently in San Jose. The first is Compleat Female Stage Beauty, now through February 20, 2011, at City Lights Theater Company (read my review). The second, also through February 20, is The Dresser at San Jose Rep, which stars James Carpenter in the title role (his character's name is Norman) and Ken Ruta as the blustering, spent, leading man everyone calls Sir.
If you only have time to see one of these plays, go to City Lights. The performances by the principals at the Rep are fine, and hats off to some of the players with smaller roles, including Blake Ellis as a marvelously terse Oxenby and Blythe Foster as an oversexed Irene. As for the production values, they are at a level that a smaller company like City Lights could never hope to match. But The Dresser has not aged well since appearing on Broadway in 1980. Its story is sentimental and clichéd, a melodrama as tired and creaky as the aging Sir himself. While I can understand why playing either Norman or Sir would be on almost any actor's bucket list, 30 years later, I'm not sure what's in it for the audience.
For those of you not familiar with the story of The Dresser, the action is set in "a theatre in the English provinces." It is January of 1942, and the Germans, the script would have us believe, are bombing cities all over England. Too bad playwright Ronald Harwood was not as interested in historical accuracy as Stage Beauty playwright Jeffrey Hatcher -- in fact, the German Blitz of England took place between September of 1940 and May of 1941, and a follow-up series of bombing runs by the Luftwaffe, the so-called Baedeker Raids, did not commence until April of 1942. Thus, the air-raid sirens that moan throughout The Dresser are as contrived as the drama that unfolds before us.
Of course, plays and other works of fiction routinely upend the historical record for their own dramatic purposes, so what about Harwood's characters? At the beginning of the play, Sir has been hospitalized for a very public nervous breakdown in Market Square. "He does nothing but cry," are the first words we hear, spoken by Her Ladyship (Rachel Herker), who is set to play Cordelia to Sir's King Lear. She's given the best years of her life to this "third-rate actor-manager on a tatty tour of the provinces," as she describes her life companion in everything but marriage. "Sir. Her Ladyship," she sneers at him in the second act. "We're a laughing-stock."
Sir (Ken Ruta), Oxenby (Blake Ellis)
True enough, which is perhaps why Sir is ultimately so unsympathetic. Even at his advanced age, Sir still cowers in the shadow of his long-departed overbearing father, and blubbers like a child about the glories that should have been his. He would like to write his autobiography, to share the lessons of a life lived to its fullest, albeit in costume, but he can't come up with a title better than My Life. He even fears the bit players in his company, primarily, we suspect, because they are bright enough not to fear him. Who in the world would care about this loser, anyway?
Norman, of course. Borrowing from the tropes of daytime TV soap operas, Norman is Sir's closeted would-be lover, a basket case in his own right who keeps a flask of brandy close to dull the ache of Sir's lack of reciprocal attention, let alone affection. Naturally there's a part of Sir that is quite willing to throw in the towel. "Even kings abdicate," he mutters to Norman early on, as if the comparison was even remotely apt. But Norman purrs forth his manipulations, poisoning the old man's mind with an endless stream of impossible-to-believe compliments. Norman may truly love the man, but in the end Sir is also his meal ticket. The show must go on!
Irene (Blythe Foster), Norman (James Carpenter)
A pox on both their houses, if you ask me. I suppose there will be those who will delight in Harwood's occasionally clever wordplay and will revel in the challenge of pairing Sir's confused rants with their various sources in Shakespeare, but Harwood's setting is entirely gratuitous. Sir could have been a has-been, and Norman a sycophant, in any era. In contrast, the transformation imposed on the actor Edward Kynaston in Stage Beauty is history itself.
The Dresser runs through February 20, 2011 at San Jose Rep. For tickets and information, visit sjrep.com.
All photos by Kevin Berne.