Henriette-Rosine Bernard aka Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923) was the most famous diva/actress of her day (with Italy’s Elenora Duse at her heels). The rambunctious young woman worked with Comédie-Française, The Gymnase, and The Odéon, eventually helming her own company and then her own theater. She maintained the scandalous, highly theatrical lifestyle of an adventurous libertine, toured widely (and lavishly) whenever she ran out of money, outraged the public by also playing male roles, made and lost great sums. Bernhardt continued to act even after having a leg amputated. The actress was briefly married once, issuing son, Maurice.
Paris, France 1897. Having returned from her last American tour a critical success but broke, Sarah Bernhardt purchases and restores a theater in which to make her comeback. Middle-aged and anxious, she decides to make a splash playing Hamlet – rather than the much repeated Ophelia or more age-appropriate Gertrude. In fact, though others protest the character is 30, she insists he’s 19.
Bernhardt (Janet McTeer) in breeches, rehearses with the company: Constant Coquelin (the wonderful Dylan Baker) who himself has played the role several times albeit in the provinces, Lysette (Brittany Bradford), Francois (Triney Sandovel), and Raoul (Aaron Costa Ganis).
Oh what a rogue and peasant slave am I!/Is it not monstrous that this player here,/But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,/ Could force his soul…Bernhardt stops, thinking. CONSTANT (sotto voce, prompting)…so to his own conceit–… Lines are forgotten; impatience obvious. Enter playwright Edmond Rostand (Jason Butler Harner). The lovers retire to her dressing room, but are interrupted. Knowing where he would be, Mrs. Rostand has sent word that their baby is ill. “Babies are always sick!” snaps Bernhardt, furious at his departure.
The world lately is not, as accustomed, conforming to her will. In an era when women were both morally and legally subjugated (another era), Bernhardt acquired reputation and power beyond her sex. Playwright Theresa Rebeck offers a more human look at the icon whose egotistical repute is well known. Bernhardt snaps when theatrical judgment is questioned yet glimmers of doubt are at work as clearly as perfectionism. Sexually profligate, she’s aggressive, yet not just angry when Rostand absents himself, but also somewhat worried.
As to Hamlet, though she’s angry at his lack of decisive action, the actress appears to wrestle less with character than with iambic pentameter, somehow obscuring her interpretation – his soul? Having played Shakespeare for decades it’s interesting to conceive this might occur.
Dylan Baker, Jason Butler Harner, Janet McTeer, Matthew Saldivar
Bernhardt did, in fact, commission and perform a version of Shakespeare’s play without the poetry. Though we don’t know whether, as suggested here, Rostand attempted one for her first, it’s perfectly credible in context. They don’t come to see Hamlet,” artist/friend Alphonse Mucha (a solid Matthew Saldivar) assures her. “They come to see you play Hamlet.”
“Maybe there’s too much poetry in Sarah,” he later reflects. “Maybe Shakespeare’s the one who needs to settle down…” Mucha, whose posters became aesthetically emblematic of the era’s theater, is one of two peripheral characters meant to put Bernhardt in perspective. The other is a critic called Louis (Tony Carlin), reflecting her public.
In Act II, adult son, Maurice (Nick Westrate), reveals a glimpse of affectionate motherhood and ultimate resemblance of character, but is otherwise superfluous, while Rostand’s Machiavellian wife (Ito Aghayere) introduces a thorny realization of her husband’s take on relationships (presumably his and Bernhardt’s).
Jason Butler Harner and Janet McTeer
Employing his new play, Cyrano de Bergerac, which in fact premiered in 1897, she introduces a point of view Bernhardt never expected causing an intended breech. It’s an immensely clever idea. Somehow, one would prefer it unfold without the actual presence of Madame Rostand, however. The distraction, if minor, is unnecessary.
The meat of this predominantly splendid play lies in Bernhardt’s force-of-nature approach to both theater and life and our contemporary views on gender as seen through the anomaly that was Bernhardt. We fluidly dip in and out of the Bard’s script with moments of riveting presence (several brief scenes with Baker and McTeer stand out) and others of tired actors making fun of the work. Rebeck’s intimacy with and love of theater shines. Her dual-decade observation is intriguing, colorful, eloquent.
Janet McTeer vibrates with energy and awareness bringing intelligence and insight to a multi-layered role. Her Sarah is at once larger than life – imbuing offstage time with innate dramatics and allowing us to see her hiding anything less than bravado. In fact, McTeer is so subtle with fissures in her character’s security, so constantly and abruptly moving, the role achieves momentum that would benefit by just a bit of stillness. Still, it’s a formidable turn executed by a formidable talent.
Alas, I find Jason Butler Harner’s Rostand far less manly than someone to whom Bernhardt would have found attractive. Facial exaggerations, self-conscious gestures and a lack of desired chemistry keep the liaison from feeling real or heated.
Director Moritz von Stuelpnagel keeps the chronicle lively, stages rehearsals with authenticity and humor, uses his appreciable set with imagination, and manages character regard with finesse.
Beowulf Boritt’s flat out terrific Scenic Design opens with the biggest backstage Louise Nevelson-looking environment you never imagined. Flats, stairs, chairs, props and sandbags are all painted black. The set seamlessly revolves revealing several changes in record time. Edmund Rostand’s library looks dusty and apt, an outdoor café stands before crammed-together buildings, Bernhardt’s dressing room is an iconoclastic, baroque hodgepodge.
Costumes by Toni-Leslie James are right for time, place, and play. Except for Ophelia’s squared off gown, everything creates an attractive panoply.
Production Photos by Joan Marcus
Opening: Dylan Baker and Janet McTeer
Roundabout Theatre Company presents
Bernhardt/Hamlet by Theresa Rebeck
Directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel
Through November 11, 2018
American Airlines Theater
227 West 42nd Street