Theatre Review by Howard Miller - September 25, 2018
Bernhardt/Hamlet by Theresa Rebeck. Directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel. Set design by Beowulf Boritt. Costume design by Toni-Leslie James. Lighting design by Bradley King. Original music and sound design by Fitz Patton. Hair and wig design by Matthew B. Armentrout. Dialect consultant Stephen Gabis. Fight consultant Robert Westley. Cast: Janet McTeer, Dylan Baker, Brittany Bradford, Triney Sandoval, Aaron Costa Ganis, Jason Butler Harner, Tony Carlin, Matthew Saldivar, Nick Westrate, Ito Aghayere, Matthew Amendt, Jenelle Chu, Kate Levy, and Chris Thorn.
The year is 1897. At the age of 53, "The Divine Sarah" can no longer pull off or even abide performing the popular and lucrative title role in Dumas' romance La Dame Aux Camelias. She also is coming off a short-lived production of La Samaritaine, a critical success though a financial failure that was written by her lover, rising star playwright Edmond Rostand (Jason Butler Harner). She may be his muse, as he says, but that doesn't mean she can afford to sit around waiting for his next play to materialize. What, then, can the world's greatest actress do to make that next leap forward, and in a bold enough way so as to maintain her place at the top of the A-list? Why, take on the world's greatest role, of course.
Act I focuses the challenges Bernhardt faces in assuming the character of Hamlet, both in terms of how to approach the part and how to preemptively shut down the naysayers who would heartily disapprove of a woman daring to play the role in the first place. A theater critic called Louis (Tony Carlin), the poster artist Alphonse Mucha (Matthew Saldivar), and even Rostand argue from the male perspective as to whether a woman, even one of her caliber, can or ought to enact Hamlet. Even Bernhardt has trepidations; her reputation and her livelihood are at stake after all. And yet, really, can there be the slightest doubt that she will succeed? She just wants to get it right. "I have the words," she says. "It's the sense of it that eludes."
Both McTeer and Rebeck do splendidly with delineating the struggle over unpacking the enigma that is Hamlet: the line readings, the mannerisms, specific actions, even the design of the advertising poster, the costumes and everything else she has to consider. A real highlight is a scene in which Bernhardt and the actor Constant Coquelin (the excellent Dylan Baker), who is playing the ghost of Hamlet's father, are striving to work out the characters' personal relationship in order to guide the way they play the scene. When they make a breakthrough, it is a grand master class moment, one that drew spontaneous applause at the performance I attended and one that makes you hope one day to see the pair of them return to the stage to give us a complete production of Hamlet.
The theme of women's autonomy is better handled as the play progresses and we can discern for ourselves all of the effort that Bernhardt puts into her career, her public image, her carefully-cultivated relationships, how she keeps her lovers and worshippers under her thrall, and how she tackles her many responsibilities, all the while dealing with jerks like the critic Louis who pompously declares, "a woman with power is a freak." We also see another smart and determined woman in Edmond's wife Rosamond (Ito Aghayere), who shows up unannounced at Bernhardt's dressing room and who proceeds, in a way that neither the actress nor we anticipate, to explain the purpose of her visit. Like Bernhardt, this is a woman who knows exactly what is important to her.
Don't go to Bernhardt/Hamlet with the expectation of seeing a bio-play about the life and times of Sarah Bernhardt. Theresa Rebeck brings her own agenda to the table, and theatrical verisimilitude takes precedence over accuracy. Anyone looking for historic validity had best stick with the non-fiction section of the library. Yet Janet McTeer's performance is magnificent, completely capturing her character's charisma, talent, and underlying ambition. The rest of the cast is strong as well, and Toni-Leslie James' costumes and Beowulf Boritt's revolving set design, ranging from the near-empty stage where the Hamlet rehearsals take place, to a Paris café, to Bernhardt's snazzy dressing room, provide a wonderful visual context. All told, Bernhardt/Hamlet is a grand way to launch Roundabout's commitment to producing new works on Broadway, and an equally grand way to kick off the fall Broadway season!