She’s Bernhardt, She’s Hamlet, and She Wears the Pants
[Full article published in The Clyde Fitch Report, September 26, 2018.]
Actress Sarah Bernhardt — born in 1844 to a Dutch courtesan, died in 1923, buried in Père-Lachaise in Paris — had a life and career so outsized that the field of poster design was revolutionized to capture her. Plays were written for her; her romantic life spanned genders and continents. Bernhardt: the name itself connoted outsized emotions. When I was young, any overly dramatic adolescent girl or boy was a “Sarah Bernhardt.”
Taking a chapter of Bernhardt’s life from 1897, Rebeck finds themes of modern feminism and how to craft a creative life. The actress had long grown out of the ingénue and young romantic leads that she’d used to forge her reputation, and now has signed a lease on a Parisian theater that would become her creative home for the next several decades. When we encounter her — as played by a magnificent Janet McTeer, splendidly calibrating her performance powers to the ebbs and flows of the script — she is working on an adaptation of Hamlet that is being reluctantly crafted by her married lover, Cyrano de Bergerac playwright Edmond Rostand (flighty and besotted Jason Butler Harner). The romance is but a sideline: it’s Bernhardt, arguing to adapt this classic young male Shakespearean role to her 50-something female frame, in whom we’re naturally interested.
The strengths of this production, finely staged by Moritz von Stuelpnagel, center on scenes in which Bernhardt makes choices in rehearsal about her performance and demonstrates her generosity toward colleagues. They include delightful clowns Raoul (Aaron Costa Ganis) and Francois (Triney Sandoval), gentle ingénue Lysette (Brittany Bradford), and especially Dylan Baker’s crisp, competent Constant Coquelin, the leading actor of her troupe.
McTeer gives a great performance. Catch the catch in her throat at the first mention of a father that sets up the rest of the play; watch her righteous delivery of monologues in spotlight or in conversation; spot her humor and pathos while expounding on the value of women as humans, and of humans as equals. In a rehearsal scene, McTeer makes love to the ingenue of her troupe, who is playing a man. It’s just as we would imagine it. Such character-specific self-awareness is thrilling.