Review: ‘Bernhardt/Hamlet’

John Tufts as Edmond Rostand and Terri McMahon as Sarah Bernhardt in “Bernhardt/Hamlet (Photo by Liz Lauren)

RECOMMENDED

Where: Goodman Albert
Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.
When: through Oct. 20
Tickets: $25-$80
Phone: 312-443-3800

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

On May 20, 1899, Sarah Bernhardt, the most famous actress of her era, made her debut in the title role of “Hamlet” in a prose adaptation of Shakespeare’s play written for her by Eugène Morand and Marcel Schwob. Performed by her own company at her own theater in Paris, it was a critical and popular success, though not without controversy, despite the fact that she’d taken on breeches roles before, and Englishwoman Sarah Siddons had tackled Hamlet more than a century earlier.

In her Pulitzer Prize-nominated “Bernhardt/Hamlet,” which premiered at the Roundabout Theatre Company on Broadway last year, Theresa Rebeck spins these facts into a delicious backstage comedy combined with a class on Shakespeare analysis and a disquisition on gender politics. The result is nearly three hours of witty, intellectually stimulating fare that could use some trimming but seldom lags in Goodman Theatre’s Chicago premiere featuring a fine ensemble guided by Canadian director Donna Feore.

Oregon Shakespeare Festival regular Terri McMahon heads the cast as “the divine Sarah,” the daughter of a prostitute and a self-made woman before the phrase was coined. She doesn’t quite command the stage as one might hope, but she is a lively presence and the picture of someone who is independent and strong-willed yet quite willing to use her sexuality to get her way.

Already in her 50s, Bernhardt is too old for the ingenue roles like Camille and Ophelia that made her reputation, and older women like Gertrude bore her, so it’s not surprising she wants to challenge herself by tackling the part that’s the summit for actors not yet of an age to play Lear. Anyway, she argues, Hamlet is a boy of 19 with the mind of a 40-year-old, and only a woman “can combine the light carriage of youth with the mature thought of a man.”

While Hamlet’s age—19 or 30—becomes a recurring subject of debate, Sarah admits that trying to play him is driving her crazy. She’s used to being in power, and his inaction is the heart of the problem. As she puts it succinctly to Alphonse Mucha (Gregory Linington), the Art Nouveau artist who immortalized her in many paintings and posters, “a woman who cannot do anything is nothing. A man who does nothing is Hamlet.”

Linington’s good-humored Mucha is one of the men swirling around Sarah and expressing varying opinions of her endeavor. He sees nothing wrong with it but is disturbed that he can’t get her looking right in his poster; her hair, in particular, is horrible. Most critical is the critic Louis Lamercier (William Dick), who calls her a “freak.”

The members of Bernhardt’s company are entirely accepting, even Constant Coquelin who previously played the Danish prince. Larry Yando is perfect as this aging actor, and he and McMahon have some delightful scenes hashing out how to stage the play. One of the funniest and most telling is the encounter between Hamlet and the Ghost of his father. Yando at first has the specter speak in the bombastic style of nineteenth-century actors, until McMahon’s Sarah urges a more natural approach, and the whole tone changes.

Sarah’s frustration with Shakespeare’s poetry, which she finds excessive, is the core of the plot. Rebeck  invents a passionate love affair between her and playwright Edmond Rostand (John Tufts), who wants to be supportive but has mixed feelings about her as Hamlet. When she asks him to rewrite the play taking out the poetry, it causes a crisis. He’s anxious to do what she asks even though he doesn’t completely approve, but he finds it impossible, and it is preventing him from working on his own play, which turns out to be his masterpiece, “Cyrano de Bergerac.”

If this didn’t already strain their relationship, Rostand’s wife, Rosamond (Jennifer Latimore), puts nails in the coffin with a visit to Sarah to show her his play. The calculated effect is dramatic, though not what we’d immediately expect until Sarah launches into a diatribe.

It’s here, in the second act, that “Bernhardt/Hamlet” seems to go a bit astray with an extended scene from “Cyrano” about the character’s nose with the usual double meanings. In addition, Sarah’s adult son, Maurice (Luigi Sottile), shows up to express his disapproval, fuel her worries about money, and spar—with swords and all.

This leads to a touching and visually stunning ending that’s on a par with the whole design of the show. Narelle Sissons’ set, beautifully lit by Robert Wierzel, conjures up an old theater but shifts to other locations when props are moved around. Dana Osborne’s costumes make the right distinctions for stage and street, and Joanna Lynne Staub’s original music and sound design are evocative but unobtrusive.

One final thought about rewriting Shakespeare. Though it’s been done more-or-less successfully many times, when Bernhardt brings up the idea, it may be distressing. But it’s important to remember – even if it’s not apparent in the play – that she already was dealing with a French translation of Shakespeare’s poetry.