Monday, November 19, 2018

Bernhardt/Hamlet: The Player’s Life

Janet McTeer in Bernhardt/Hamlet. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

It’s hard to imagine that devout theatrephiles wouldn’t fall for Theresa Rebeck’s new play Bernhardt/Hamlet, which has just completed its run at the Roundabout’s American Airlines Theatre. It’s a gossipy, diverting backstage comedy, set in 1897, about Sarah Bernhardt’s decision, relatively late in her career, to play Hamlet. Rebeck has taken considerable liberties with the historical facts. In her version Bernhardt (played by Janet McTeer) and the neo-Romantic playwright Edmond Rostand (Jason Butler Harner, hamming with fervor), in several of whose plays she starred, are also lovers, and she begs him to rewrite Shakespeare’s text for her so that it’s more prosaic; she complains that she’s getting mired in the poetry. And the play builds to a second-act encounter with Rostand’s wife Rosamond (the talented Ito Aghayere, impressive in Mlima’s Tale at the Public last spring), who begs her to liberate him from the task, which is driving him to distraction and getting in the way of his completing Cyrano de Bergerac. It doesn’t matter very much that these details are Rebeck’s invention, since Bernhardt/Hamlet has a grandiose, tall-tale style and the narrative ideas are very amusing.

The play takes about a third of an act to get going, but once it does it falters only once – in a second-act scene between Bernhardt and her son Maurice (Nick Westrate), which constitutes a miscalculation in style: it’s too broad and starts to seem rather silly. The cast of characters also features Bernhardt’s friend and frequent co-star, the celebrated Constant Coquelin (Dylan Baker, in a transformative goatee and ‘stash, looking as if he’s entertaining himself at least as much as the audience), and Alphonse Mucha (an excellent Matthew Saldivar), who designed the iconic art nouveau posters for Bernhardt’s shows. The play is, of course, a vehicle for the actress who plays the divine Sarah, and McTeer gives a juicy star performance. Also a generous one: she manages to command the stage without giving any of the four men who frequently share it with her short shrift.

The best scene in the play is the penultimate one. Sarah has read the manuscript of Cyrano de Bergerac that Rosamond left with her, having assured her that it’s Rostand’s masterpiece and that he’s intended it for her. When Rostand arrives, she tells him that indeed it’s a great play, that Coquelin will be splendid in it (as reportedly he was), but that the role of Roxane, which he’s supposedly tailored for her, is an insult to any actress of spirit. What makes this scene so much fun, aside from McTeer’s wit and feistiness, is how accurate Bernhardt’s assessment is – and how swiftly she gets to the flaw at the heart of Cyrano. Rostand thinks he’s created a heroine so enchanting that everyone in the theatre will fall instantly in love with her, but she’s so shallow that she can’t see past Cyrano’s surface (his nose) or Christian’s (his beefcake looks), and she’s such a dimwit that it takes her five acts – and Cyrano’s death – to realize who wrote her all those melting romantic letters. Unfortunately, Rebeck doesn’t take up the other mistake in Rostand’s otherwise delectable romance: the unsatisfying downbeat ending. I’ve always preferred Steve Martin’s updated movie version, Roxanne, which reconfigures the romantic tragedy as a romantic comedy. 

Bernhardt/Hamlet’s director, Moritz von Stuelpnagel, scored on Broadway two seasons ago with another comedy about outrageous theatre folk, a revival of Noël Coward’s Present Laughter; he’s a perfect match for this kind of material. He’s staged the production handily, and it’s very handsome: Beowulf Boritt’s enormously clever set designs are beautifully lit by Bradley King, and the costumes by Toni-Leslie James are sumptuous, especially, appropriately enough, McTeer’s. The play was commissioned by the Roundabout Theatre Company, and it was ideal for them, though its production demands are probably too hefty for it to be picked up by many regional theatres. I assume it will resurface in the West End, with McTeer returning to a role that is perfectly suited to her talents.

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 Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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