Pictured: Terri McMahon. Photo by Liz Lauren.
By Josh Flanders
“All theater is an act of ego”- Sarah Bernhardt in Bernhardt/Hamlet
The stories of the legendary French actress Sarah Bernhardt are mythical. Lover of rich and powerful men. Diva. The original celebrity. More popular than presidents and popes. Her decision to play Hamlet in the late 1890s takes the theater world by storm and is met with criticism and derision. Shakespeare is sacred. Yet what could be more perfect for the greatest actress of modern history than the greatest role?
The Goodman’s production of Bernhardt/Hamlet by Theresa Rebeck, directed by Donna Feore, revisits this time in the sumptuous actress’ life with humor and insight, as well as a couple historical changes. But as Bernhardt says, “It’s the theater. Everybody cheats.” The intricate set, by Narelle Sissons, evokes the feeling of being backstage with ropes and props, looking in on a pivotal moment in history. Dana Osborne’s costumes are utilitarian, made for the theater, with none of the opulence expected of Bernhardt.
Terri McMahon is funny and formidable as Bernhardt. She speaks at length about the power of drama, at one time accusing Shakespeare of never having an original thought. “Theater itself in an act of transformation,” she says, justifying why she wants an edited, prose version of Hamlet instead of the flowery poetry of the original. (Cue lots of iambic pentameter jokes.)
John Tufts plays Edmond Rostand with whom she has an affair and commissions to adapt Hamlet (one of the historical inconsistencies – Eugène Morand and Marcel Schwob were the actual adapters). Tufts and McMahon have wonderful chemistry and their scenes together, along with the delightful Larry Yando (playing Constant Coquelin, a famous actor and mentor who co-starred with Bernhardt) and stoic, but hilarious, William Dick (playing Louis Lamercier, a critic), are the highlight of the play. They debate the appropriateness of a woman (middle-age, nonetheless) playing Hamlet, going back and forth, exploring every angle of gender and of the melancholy Dane. For fans of Shakespeare and of theater, this is as good as it gets.
The themes of Hamlet and Bernhardt’s own struggle intertwine on many levels. When her son returns from college, the echoes of the bard are directly stated. Despite the power and importance of the woman-playing-Hamlet debate, Bernhardt/Hamlet never seems to get beyond it or come to a cogent conclusion. The play seems to carry on, hitting the same point again and again. It ends with a performance of Cyrano (actually written by Rostand) that Bernhardt had ingeniously berated for the flat lead female character, calling Roxanne “an empty vessel” but later unexplainedly lauds. Despite the eminently interesting subject matter, Rebeck’s script does not quite live up to Bernhardt’s reputation, leaving a wanting for more in-depth exploration.