TRANSFORMATION Applying layers of self and not-self.
"Sir, it's time to age," Norman wryly prompts "Sir," an esteemed Shakespearean actor about to play Lear for the 272nd time. For 16 years, Norman (James Herrera) has devotedly helped Sir (David Butler) into and out of crowns, cloaks, and underthings. But the whole enterprise is changing these days (January 1942) as Sir's delivery becomes a constant fight against air-raid drills and the debilitating chaos of his own mind. Still devoted, the underappreciated Norman now has the formidable responsibility of humoring and cajoling, flattering and admonishing the great actor on stage to perform, in Ronald Harwood's The Dresser. Mad Horse's intimate production is directed by Christine Louise Marshall.
Marshall introduces the play as a "love letter to the theater," and indeed, this production lavishes affection on the minutiae of what goes on within and in the wings of the proscenium. As the droll and competent Norman assists Sir, we watch the entire process of transforming him to Lear: First cloak and jewels, then thick pancake make-up to hollow his cheeks and bring out the bones in his hands, and finally the shock of silver wig.
The rest of Sir's troupe make up a dramatis personae of pitch-perfect and oft-battling theater types (well cast by Marshall), united by love of the theater, as well as varying degrees of anxiety on account of Sir. Tootie Van Reenen beautifully balances fear, anger, and a diva's ego as the aging leading lady and wife of Sir; Kathleen Kimball is clipped and brisk as the no-nonsense stage manager Madge. And Andrea Lopez, a newcomer to Mad Horse, lends breathtaking ambivalence to the nubile and very young actress Irene, whose attraction to the theater she momentarily conflates with a rather more specific attraction. There is also a slew of the troupe's supporting actors, including flamboyant boy actors clinging to each other, and the bitter, limping Mr. Oxenby (Burke Brimmer). It's moving to watch them all together in the wings during Lear's storm scene, where Sir performs out of our own view: In the spill of the spots (evocative light design is by Tom Wyatt), all are caught up in creating the stage-crafted "storm" as they watch Sir's most anguished speech, and all, despite worries, slights or chips on shoulders, are visibly transported by his art.
The Dresser presents the excellent Butler in perhaps the richest role I've yet seen him in, and his performance is, to use a word that stirs Sir, mighty. He luxuriates in a mighty range of feeling through some gorgeous lines and speeches. "I have 'Howl, howl, howl' yet to speak," he announces backstage during the interval, before telling Normal of how, on stage, he saw himself removed from his body, how he saw Lear -- an old man. Butler gives all, gives quivering vulnerability, rage, bravado, and -- most poignantly -- Sir's utter fatigue, in full comprehension of what it foretells.
The moments surrounding that inevitable event, when it finally arrives, could be paced a tad more slowly, but Herrera makes fine work of the transformation it piques in Norman. As his witty, self-shunting efficiency falls away to reveal pathos, he reminds us that for any one man's grand and epic decline, there are many more that go silently.
Megan Grumbling can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
THE DRESSER | by Ronald Harwood | Directed by Christine Louise Marshall | Produced by Mad Horse Theatre Company | at the Portland Stage Studio Theater | through October 25 | 207.730.2389