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Stage Review: Matched co-stars pull off 'Dresser' in style

Thursday, March 20, 2003

By Christopher Rawson, Post-Gazette Drama Critic

This has been the Jay Keenan farewell season at the Duquesne University Red Masquers, designed to showcase the acting of the Duquesne professor who is retiring as the group's executive producer after 28 years. But Keenan has been showcased for years by the Red Masquers, which freely augments its student base with faculty and community actors.

 
 
"The Dresser"

Where: Duquesne University Red Masquers at Peter Mills Theatre, Rockwell Hall, campus.

When: 8 p.m. through Saturday.

Tickets: $4 or $6; 412-396-6215.

   
 

How remarkable, then, in the finale of this season-long swan song, that Keenan takes a subsidiary role. In Ronald Harwood's "The Dresser," he plays Sir, the elderly actor-manager of a tattered English Shakespeare ensemble that is touring the provinces in World War II, playing King Lear, Othello, Richard III and Shylock, night after night. His is a meaty role, but the true hero is Sir's exploited dresser and general factotum, Norman, for whom the play is named.

And after many a time playing opposite undergraduates unable to match him in age, experience or (usually) ability, Keenan shares the stage with an actor who is truly in his element. The match between Ken Bolden and Norman is made in thespian heaven. In returning from New York to do this show at Duquesne, where, he says, Keenan helped infect him with the acting bug 20-plus years ago, Bolden pays graceful tribute to his former mentor but also serves the audience privileged to see him bring Norman to fussy, feeling life.

"The Dresser" is an extension to "King Lear," as though Harwood set out to settle the old puzzle over what happens to Lear's Fool after he disappears two-thirds of the way through the play. Sir is Lear twice over: On the night dramatized, he is acting that tempestuous old tyrant for the 227th time, and the play cuts away from the backstage drama to show him orating amid his moth-eaten company. But he is Lear backstage, too, ruling his diminished and divided theatrical kingdom with outrage and cunning, and here his infinitely supportive Fool is the querulous Norman.

Meanwhile, the Blitz is on, German bombs falling in parallel to the storms that Lear battles on the heath. Sir fades in and out of a Lear-like lunacy, as when he mixes Lear, Bottom, Richard III, Henry V and Macbeth in one funny, mad soliloquy.

Bolden's Norman is a creation of masterful detail: North country accent, effeminate hand gestures, obsession over clothing and what he calls his "best nanny voice." Although Connie Culbertson plays Her Ladyship, Sir's ineffectual wife (who continues to play Cordelia years past her stale date), with plaintive effect, we see that backstage, Norman is Sir's true but unacknowledged wife and minder.

Keenan is affecting as the self-indulgent elderly ham. He doesn't move storms or threaten real madness, but he achieves a kind of stentorian insistence and does Sir's befuddlement to a T.

Kim Zelonis shows touching restraint as pasty-faced Madge, the stage manager who has loved Sir silently for 20 years. In a large but peripheral company of "old men, cripples and nancy boys" Sir has pasted together, Chris Galgon is wonderfully stiff as Gloucester and Tim Colbert, stiff and sour as the unbending actor playing Edmund.

Director John Lane moves the action well and has designed a set wagon that speeds up scene changes. It's fun watching the old-fashioned special-effects equipment (thunder sheet, rain box, wind machine).

Norman has his own theatrical memories, including a brief appearance years ago in "Outward Bound" -- tellingly, a play about the transition from this world to the next. That readies us for the play's climax, when the mantle of tragedy shifts from melodramatic Sir to mousy Norman. So Keenan's farewell production proves to be Sir's, as well. What a fine play.


Christopher Rawson can be reached at crawson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1666.

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