Regional Reviews: Albuquerque/Santa Fe
Why is she still so famous? Was her acting so superior, or was it savvy self-promotion and a knack for getting more publicity than anyone else? In today's parlance, did she create a "Sarah Bernhardt brand" that everyone was dying to see? Did she, in effect, create the cult of celebrity? Albuquerque actress par excellence Bridget Kelly has been fascinated by Bernhardt's persona for years, and she has now turned her research into a play for herself to performwith Bernhardt.
How can this be? Through the magic of modern technology, of course. Bridget plays Phoebe, a non-traditional (meaning "older") graduate student trying to finish a dissertation on Bernhardt. Way behind schedule, frazzled, and suffering from writer's block, Phoebe is stymied in how to make Bernhardt relevant to today's world, until she hits upon the similarity between Bernhardt's catchphrase "quand même" (nevertheless) and the contemporary word "meme." Bernhardt, if she were alive today, would be all over the interneta meme, in other words.
In Divining Bernhardt, given two recent performances at The Cell, Bernhardt does indeed show up on Phoebe's computer, not in old photographs, but as a living being. Time is irrelevant in the digital world. After initial incredulity, Phoebe accepts the impossible premise that the Sarah Bernhardt, who died in 1923, is conversing with her from over a century ago. Will Bernhardt spur Phoebe to complete her dissertation by the deadline, or will she help Phoebe complete her life instead?
The gimmick (that word might make it sound cheap, but it isn't) of the play is that Bridget Kelly plays both Phoebe live on stage and Bernhardt on an enlarged computer screen. (The latter role was filmed in period dress and decor.) It's a dangerous gambit because it depends on perfect timing and no glitches in the technology, but at the performance I saw, it went off without a hitch. Much credit goes to Vicki Marie Singer, the stage manager, for pulling it off. The one drawback is that our eyes gravitate more to the screen than to the person acting right in front of us, but that's where we direct our attention nowadays.
The concept of the play is brilliant, much more engaging than simply having Bridget impersonate Bernhardt and relate the story of her life. It was excellently performed and executed, but as it stands, it feels incomplete. There's enough material here for a play twice as long, but it has been chopped down to 40 minutes, and the ending is abrupt. There's a reason for this: It has been accepted into the upcoming United Solo Theatre Festival in New York City and that's the amount of time it has been allotted. To accommodate the time constraint, a few plot points could be dropped in order to give us more of the interaction between Phoebe and Sarah. Hopefully, it will be expanded after the United Solo Fest performance. Bring it back to Albuquerque, and maybe tour it around the country. Sarah Bernhardt is still a big enough name to draw audiences, and Bridget Kelly should be too.
Divining Bernhardt ran October 11-12, 2019, at The Cell Theatre, 700 1st St NW, Albuquerque NM. It will be presented in two performances on November 9, 2019, in the United Solo Theatre Festival at Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street, New York NY. (The first scheduled performance sold out so another one was added).