French actress Sarah Bernhardt was a powerful woman calling her own shots at a time when few women anywhere got to do so. As such, she is a perfect subject for a feminist play. But Theresa Rebeck's Bernhardt/Hamlet certainly is not at all political. It does not seek to change the world, though its tale of such a forceful and dynamic woman certainly seems timely in our modern, retrograde era. And this very funny and entertaining play, wonderfully directed by Donna Feore, certainly allows us to get to know its fascinating subject. Ultimately, though, Rebeck's script takes a too-sharp second act turn that destabilizes its focus.
Bernhardt was the most well-known actress of the late 19th century. She could pretty much choose the parts she wished to play, and she even owned her own 1,700-seat theater in Paris. But in 1899, Bernhardt decided that she was not being challenged enough and determined to take on the greatest acting test in all of theatre: the melancholy Dane, Shakespeare's Hamlet.
The first act of Bernhardt/Hamlet shows us the depth of her risk. We watch as Bernhardt, played with all of the requisite fire, passion, and arrogance by Terri McMahon, works through scene after scene of the Bard's greatest play with her cast (including the always-great Larry Yando as French actor Constant Coquelin). It is a joy to be present as she delves deeply into the complicated text ("'Unpregnant'? Now you're just making up words"), questioning whether Shakespeare's "gift for poetry at times overwhelms the power of his playwriting."
All of this struggle makes for a compelling and delightful opening act, but it is not the play's entire focus. Rebeck spends a lot of time fixating on an entirely invented affair with Edmond Rostand (John Tufts in a strong, varied portrayal), the French playwright of Cyrano de Bergerac who wrote several roles expressly for Bernhardt. Though Bernhardt was well-known to have had many affairs during her life, often with quite famous people, Rostand was not one of them, and unfortunately this subplot ends up derailing the play.
This occurs because Rebeck has Bernhardt request that Rostand re-write Hamlet in French and in prose, eliminating the excess of poetry that was getting in her way. (Berhardt did use such a translation, but it was written by two other playwrights.) The result is that her Rostand is side-tracked from working on Cyrano. His deep frustration fuels too much of Act Two, though it does impel an appearance by Rostand's wife Rosamond, creating a powerful if brief turn for Jennifer Latimore. The rest of Act Two focuses so much on that play that it might have been called Rostand/Cyrano and, though it remains engaging right through the last minute, the play doesn't say as much about Bernhardt's ultimate portrayal of Hamlet as it does about her early preparations for the role.
It's still easy to recommend this play because, no matter what its focus, it is an absorbing, captivating piece of theatre. Director Feore's love for the material shines through every decision she makes, and even her minor characters are thoughtfully rounded. Narelle Sissons' flexible backstage setting allows for quick and often lovely scene changes, and Dana Osborne's costumes evoke the era beautifully. There are also some absolutely lovely moments in Robert Wierzel's lighting, and Joanna Lynne Staub's sound design and original music are nothing short of perfection. Despite the issues I have with the second act, this is one impressive play both in front of and behind the scenes. I wish, though, that it had remained more true to its focus.