16 May 2019

Notes on 'The Dresser'

In answering a question about leaving relationships in the aftermath of betrayal, psychotherapist Esther Perel quotes Who Can You Trust author Rachel Botsman: "Trust is the active, responsible engagement with the unknown." Perel stresses that if we have to know for sure that our partners will never be unfaithful again, then we will never trust.

It isn't betrayal but abandonment and love without certainty, which tastes cling strongly in my mouth after watching Ronald Harwood's The Dresser, staged by Repertory Philippines on May the third.

Set in 1940s Britain, the drama sees a theater ensemble push through its promised performance, air raids be damned. Theater's promptness and clockwork make for a sharp contrast to Death's spontaneity. As in reality, what we plan can be cancelled by nature; what we produce with passion, proven meaningless. So what's the point?

Teroy Guzman and Audie Gemora are Sir and Norman in Repertory Philippines' production of The Dresser by Ronald Harwood. The show runs until May 26 at Onstage, Greenbelt. (Press photo)

At the center of this story is Norman (Audie Gemora), the titular theatrical dresser, who's a devoted companion-aide to noted Shakespearean actor, 'Sir' (Teroy Guzman). In spite of his declining health, Sir continues to perform onstage, causing trouble to everyone around him. He is difficult, stubborn, temperamental. Yet Norman stays beside him, even through his final breath.

Imagine then Norman's displeasure at the glaring absence of his name in the dedications page of Sir's autobiography. And the pain in realizing that he is alone now, left with a memory of his only friend, who may not have regarded him as a friend after all.

Gemora and Guzman disappear into their roles; while Tami Monsod as Madge, the stage manager who also harbours deep affections for Sir, provides unforgettable, if gut-wrenching scenes. Sometimes the play feels like it's coasting by, losing intensity where it matters. Though overall the show firmly stands on Harwood's evocative, in parts funny script and takes off with the leads' dramatic deftness.

Joining Guzman and Gemora is Tami Monsod, who plays stage manager, Madge. (Press photo)

Any piece of art that reflects on its nature inevitably asks, however tangential, if being a good artist equates to being a good person; and touch on mortality, or our vain attempts to live past our due date (if we were certain of a beautiful future, I don't think that we would have an impulse for art).

The Dresser engages with these themes, but ultimately speaks of our plain need to be held precious in a world of uncertainty. Both actor and dresser, craftsman and attendant offer invaluable services to humanity in their own ways; and in their own ways await their reward — which may or may not come. Call it inherent selfishness or enlightened self-interest, if we're being generous. Whether we admit it or not, we crave some form of recognition for our actions. The costume, the makeup, the act we put on each time we step out of the door is a cry for love.

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