The 13th Annual Sam Scripps Shakespeare Festival at The Center for Performing Arts at Rhinebeck began its run on March 15th with a riveting rendition of Ronald Harwood’s The Dresser. The play, set entirely backstage in a Second World War theater, follows the dramatic and enigmatic relationship of Sir (Lou Trapani), a world-renowned Shakespearean actor, and his personal assistant, Norman (Kevin Archambault). Throughout the play, Norman labors to do his job, which we soon learn is much more than merely “dressing” Sir.  Norman is a living extension of Sir, perhaps the backbone of the company, who knows more than anyone about his charge. 

The unraveling of Norman as he strives to support Sir in delivering up his Lear, is deftly portrayed by Archambault, who is enthralling from the moment he enters the stage. With humor, Archambault creates a truly memorable character of complex depth and pathos.

Trapani’s Sir is enchanting and powerfully rendered. Mr. Trapani’s performance is a gift to the audience of the sort Sir might strive for, portraying the decline and struggles of a great actor on the verge of a collapse which, if it comes, will come in front of an audience he once held in the palm of his hand. Trapani moves effortlessly through the erratic emotions of the character, and masterfully portrays a character attempting to maintain his composure and his dignity.   

Kevin Archambault as Norman and
Lou Trapani as Sir

It is a credit to director Michael Juczwack and Assistant Director Tina Reilly that the weight of the obstacles faced by the characters never feels like oppression. The production allows the audience the reprieve of laughter amid the uneasy sense of impending theatrical doom.   

The play is set on a replication of Shakespeare’s Globe, which will serve as the the festival’s backdrop for its follow up production of Much Ado About Nothing in April. From the moment of entering the house, one is authentically drawn into the wings of a venerable theater in a war-torn England of the mid-20th century.

The props and costumes are quite literally another character in this play. Norman’s inexhaustible efforts to  tend to these accoutrements for Sir, must have been mirrored  with equal attention by propmaster Wendy Urban-Mead. Her attention to period-specific pieces, from details like tissue boxes and theater make-up, to major pieces like radio-show wind machines, allowed the audience a true peek behind the scenes, and allowed the actors to manage the important and highly choreographed handling of those props with the precision the script demands. Lobsang Camacho’s costumes are flawless and beautiful period pieces. This includes the manner in which a 1940s theater company might dress King Lear, as well as the impeccable dress of Norman, whose personal dress has clearly been as much a part of his life as Sir’s meticulous costumes have been.

Kevin Archambault as Norman and Lou Trapani as Sir

The play brings together veteran actors. The talented Elaine Young portrays a sad and lonely Ladyship, who is struggling to find her own happiness.  Emily DePew is a wonderful foil for Archambault’s Norman – adeptly characterizing a voice of reason, struggling in a leadership role that leaves her looking like a bit of a killjoy while remaining well connected to the audience. Emily McCarthy, most recently seen in Rhinebeck Theatre Society’s The Curious Incident of the Dog at Night Time, shines as the ingénue with aspirations for leading lady status – demonstrating battles which perhaps Sir and her Ladyship once played out as younger versions of themselves.  Of particular note is a stunning power struggle with Archambault. 

Jim O’Neill and Russell Austin, as Lear company performers playing parts which might have been taken by younger men now off at war, are strongly played with wit and humor. Alex Skovan and Farrell Reynolds portray ensemble members fluidly, creating the sense of a frenzied life both backstage and onstage.

Kevin Archambault as Norman & Lou Trapani as Sir

The Dresser poses questions to the audience. One wonders what might have happened if each character had made different choices. The success of the direction and acting in this production is in the fact that we care about the answers to those questions for these characters.  It is a richly textured play requiring insightful performances. The Dresser‘s opening of the 2019 Sam Scripps Shakespeare Festival is a worthy and moving accomplishment, and should be seen. This show’s short run ends March 24th, so be sure to reserve your tickets by calling The Center at 845.876.3080 or visit their website at http://www.centerforperformingarts.org.

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