At the Goodman (Albert) Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Chicago – Sarah Bernhardt was one of the most famous actresses of the 19th century, but there almost no surviving records of her performances. She may indeed have been the greatest of her time (or at least in a tie with Eleanora Duse, her chief rival) or Bernhardt may have promoted herself into an eccentric personality building her fame on romantic performances in just a few plays.
American playwright Theresa Rebeck has written her take on the Divine Sarah in “Bernhardt/Hamlet,” a stimulating, uneven play now stylishly staged at the Goodman Albert Theatre. Rebeck delivers a full plate of themes–historical biography, theater history, feminism, love story, and Shakespearean criticism. The year is 1899 and the place is Paris. Bernhardt, now 55 years old, has grown famous primarily as the tragic heroine in the romantic drama “Camille.” The public demand for endless repetitions of the play seems insatiable. A drama critic speaks for the average theatergoer when he comments “Can’t she keep playing Camille? She dies so beautifully.”
Weary in middle age of her stagnant career, Bernhardt boldly decides on an unconventional career move, partly as a reaction against the limited number of important roles available to women in the theater of her day. Bernhardt announces she plans to play the role of Hamlet, a shocking choice in a time when women playing men’s roles was almost unheard off, never mind a woman playing the most famous male character in Western drama.
In the play’s best scenes, Bernhardt argues her justifications for playing Hamlet, countered by fierce opposition among her colleagues. She is warned that an attempt to play the melancholy Dane on the French stage will be a travesty on the sacred Shakespeare’s masterpiece and ruin her career. She arouses further condemnation by commissioning her lover, playwright Edmond Rostand, to prepare a rewrite of Shakespeare’s play. She intends to drain away all that time consuming verse to get to the meat of the narrative. A woman playing Hamlet is bad enough. An adaptation that eliminates most of the glorious poetry just compounds the heresy.
Bernhardt is no dilettante. She knows “Hamlet” line by line and she fearlessly aims lively zingers at Shakespeare’s most famous figure. Bernhardt wittily comments “All that privilege and he can’t figure out how to do anything” and “A woman who cannot do anything is nothing. A man who does nothing is Hamlet.”
There are a dozen characters of some significance in Rebeck’s play, but it is essentially a one-woman show. Goodman has brought in Terri McMahon , a veteran of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, to play the diva. It’s a demanding role that must convey Bernhardt with all her eccentricities, sexual appetites, egomania, and self dramatization, as well as her magnetic attraction as a great actress with sharp critical faculties.
Regrettably, McMahon’s Sarah could use more physical and vocal presence to sell the woman’s larger than life charisma. The noted British actress Janet McTeer was Sarah in the play’s 2018 premiere. McTeer is more than six feet tall, which must have enhanced the character’s dominating aura. McMahon’s Bernhardt blithely claims “No one upstages me,” but at the Goodman she is upstaged often, notably by Larry Yando’s exhilarating performance as French actor Constant Coquelin. In a rehearsal of the ghost scene in “Hamlet,” Yando takes over the stage with his commanding, slightly over the top, impersonation of the Danish’s price’s murdered father. Rebeck injects a scene from Rostand’s “Cyrano de Bergerac” near the end of the play, with Yando as the title character. I saw no dramatic purpose served by including the “Cyrano” scene, though it does make a strong case for a revival of the play with Yando as the hero.
John Tufts is a study in emotional anguish approaching hysteria as the lovesick Edmond Rostand. The playwright’s repeated operatic declarations of infatuation eventually get wearisome. Rostand seems like a decent enough man but he has virtually abandoned his wife and their two babies to sustain the love affair. Bernhardt does return his passion, at least for the present, but she has led a promiscuous life and claims three sons fathered by eminent European royalty. She casually comments that she doesn’t know where any of the boys are, a callous statement that invites speculation whether Rostand is her sexual flavor of the month. And in spite of their graphic displays of passion, I thought that Tufts and McMahon could use more erotic chemistry.
William Dick is the theater critic Louis Lamercier, whose self important attitudes stirred some anti-critic chuckles in the opening night audience. Gregory Linington is persuasive as the artist Alphonse Mucha, desperately trying to capture the elusive Bernhardt persona in his theater posters. Unfortunately, Mucha seems an add-on figure with little impact on the main proceedings. Luigi Sottile does make an impact in his late appearance as Bernhardt’s son, a young man who professes his concern for saving his mother’s reputation from what he claims is her Hamlet folly but really may have an eye on his inheritance. Jennifer Latimore has a striking single scene as Rostand’s wife, who unnerves Bernhardt with her icy calm.
Canadian director Donna Feore efficiently handles the large cast and continuous mood shifts. All the action is enclosed in Narelle Sissons’s elaborate backstage theater setting. Dana Osborne designed the rich wardrobe of period costumes. Robert Wierzel designed the lighting plan and Joanna Lynne Staub is responsible for the sound design and original music.
When “Bernhard/Hamlet” is good, it is very good. The dialogue is witty, the explorations of “Hamlet” are full of challenging insights, and several of the character confrontations crackle with tension. The play is worth seeing if only for the fresh and stimulating examination of the Bard in general and his greatest work in particular. Larry Yando enhances the audience’s pleasure with every line he speaks, but it has always been thus with this brilliant actor on local stages. On the other hand, the narrative spends too much time on the Rostand-Sarah love affair, and needs to find a legitimate place for the Alphonse Mucha figure. McMahon is certainly a creditable Bernhardt but the role demands a star turn. All in all, a good show but not a palpable hit.
“Bernhardt/Hamlet” gets a rating of
“Bernhardt/Hamlet” runs through October 20 at the Goodman Albert Theatre, 170 North Dearborn Street. Most performances are Wednesday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Thursday and Sunday at 2 and 7:30 p.m., and Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m. Tickets are $25 to $80. Call 312 443 3800 or visit GoodmanTheatre.org/Bernhardt.
Contact Dan at:ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com September 2019
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