Monday, August 17, 2015

The Divine: Too Much Going On

Fiona Reid in The Divine: A Play for Sarah Bernhardt, the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake. (Photo: David Cooper)

In 1905, the legendary French actress Sarah Bernhardt brought a troupe of actors to Québec City to perform three plays in repertory. She was already in her early sixties, but according to the nineteenth-century traditions that still adhered into the early twentieth, great stars were thought of as ageless and inhabited their vehicles for decades. So the idea of “The Divine Sarah,” as she was popularly called, continuing to play ingénue roles like Marguerite in Camille by Dumas or the title role in Scribe and Legouvé’s Adrienne Lecouvreur wouldn’t have seemed bizarre to audiences or critics – though realists like Strindberg and Chekhov were breaking ground by challenging this and other implausibilities in a theatre that still clung to the vision of the Romantic age. (Arkadina, the actress in The Sea Gull, is a second-tier diva of the Bernhardt school, and Chekhov has some fun at her expense.) Bernhardt’s visit incited a furor when the archbishop, representing a still feudal and repressive Catholic church, objected strenuously to her appearing on a Québec stage. He would have had many reasons for trying to shut her down: she played male as well as female characters, she didn’t shy away from lurid and controversial subject matter, her offstage lifestyle was unconventional and scandalous, and – not least among the qualities that would have made her an unsavory figure in the eyes of the church – she had been born Jewish, though she’d converted to Catholicism.

This historical incident was the starting point for The Divine: A Play for Sarah Bernhardt, a new work by the Québecois playwright Michel Marc Bouchard that the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake is premiering this season (in a translation by Linda Gaboriau). Bouchard has added several narrative layers. The protagonist isn’t Bernhardt (played by Fiona Reid) but a young seminarian named Michaud (Ben Sanders), the son of a cabinet minister and a devotee of the actress, who is sent to deliver the archbishop’s letter denouncing her but winds up writing a play for her. The hero of his drama – the role she is eager to play – is actually based on his dormitory mate Talbot (Wade Bogert-O’Brien). Talbot is a working-class boy whose mother (Mary Haney) has, through considerable personal sacrifice, placed in the seminary (where his classmates are all aristocrats like Michaud) because the priesthood is the only route of escape from poverty for a boy from his background. Mrs. Talbot and her twelve-year-old son Leo (Kyle Orzech) slave in a shoe factory in wretched conditions; children like Leo, whose employment is officially illegal, are especially vulnerable. (Two little girls recently died horrible deaths here when their hair caught in the machine.) And there’s even more plot: Talbot’s entry into the seminary follows his severe beating of a priest who was initially his intellectual mentor and then began abusing him when Talbot was twelve. Brother Casgrain (Martin Happer), the director of the seminary, offers Talbot a scholarship as well as an education for Leo if he agrees not to make an official complaint about the abuse. Casgrain is also Michaud’s protector: the rules here are strict, but Michaud keeps flouting them, and Casgrain lets him get away with it. (Casgrain sees his younger self in Michaud, though his affection clearly has an un-acted-upon erotic component.) The play also covers Talbot’s coming of age, which includes his sowing his wild oats with an actress in Bernhardt’s company (Darcy Gerhart), with whom he visits an opium den and a gambling house before making love to her.

The play clearly has serious intentions, and Jackie Maxwell’s production, on a beautiful, semi-abstract slate-colored set by Michael Gianfrancesco that’s exquisitely lit by Bonnie Beecher, is somber and impressive. But it’s as overloaded as a nineteenth-century potboiler; it wanders off into so many disparate directions that I can’t say with certainty what the hell it’s really about. There’s even a suggestion in the program, which identifies the setting as “a dormitory in the prestigious Grand Seminary of Québec [that] houses all the scenes of the play,” that everything that transpires outside the dormitory – in Sarah’s dressing room, in the factory, onstage and backstage – is really being imagined by the novice playwright Michaud, though we don’t experience it in that way. And ironically, despite all the activity and furor, The Divine isn’t very dramatic. The actors struggle to find their way through thick blocks of text, but much of the time the characters just seem to be making speeches at each other. Even the factory boss (Ric Reid) – a heartless tyrant straight out of melodrama who stomps on the hand of one of his workers when he learns that she’s been disseminating unionist rhetoric and hides Leo under the floor amid the poisonous glue fumes so that Bernhardt, visiting the factory, won’t see that he’s using underage labor – holds forth like a political theorist.

Martin Happer and Wade Bogert O'Brien in The Divine. (Photo: David Cooper / Shaw Festival)

The best thing about the show is Fiona Reid’s portrayal of Sarah, which is both witty (in the first act, where Bouchard mostly wants to satirize her) and heartfelt (in the second act, where she encourages Michaud and advocates for social justice, and where we get to see her perform, briefly but gloriously). In the early scenes I was unconvinced by Sanders’s rendering of Michaud’s self-conscious theatricality, but as the play goes on and the character finds his voice, Sanders becomes more grounded; finally, I think, it’s a strong and eloquent performance. There isn’t much Ric Reid, a fine actor, can do with the role of the boss (Bouchard doesn’t even bother to give him a name). But Happer is quietly commanding as Brother Casgrain and mines his considerable vocal resources to explore the character’s ambiguities, and Andrew Bunker finds the humor in the ancillary role of Sarah’s manager, Meyer. Mary Haney is more restrained than usual as the long-suffering Mrs. Talbot, but when she gets a big scene at the end she really makes a meal of it. (I don’t mean that as a compliment.) Bogert-O’Brien makes a promising entrance at the top of the play but his acting is flat. This young actor looks great on a stage but in everything I’ve seen him do, you get the whole character in the first few moments. The Divine is more a mass of ideas and impulses than a dramatic work, but the role of Talbot has an arc and I couldn’t see much progression in Bogert-O’Brien’s performance.

The audience with which I saw the play was roused by it, and though it’s nearly three hours long – and despite all that speechifying – there’s so much going on that it’s never boring. But Bouchard takes on way too much material; there’s no conceivable way he could coax it into a well-structured play without letting go of entire narrative lines. It has to be said that when most new plays don’t contain enough ideas, you want to encourage a writer who throws in too many, but The Divine cries out for streamlining.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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