Oscar E Moore

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BERNHARDT/HAMLET – poetic/artistic license taken to the extreme

October 3rd, 2018 by Oscar E Moore

Historical dramas can prove to be problematic.  To stick to the facts or not, that is the question.  In BERNHARDT/HAMLET playwright Teresa Rebeck attempts to straddle the best of both worlds:  fact and fiction.  She is somewhat successful.  Throwing in some heavy duty female empowerment discourse to boot.

We meet the formidable French actress Sarah Bernhardt who is at a crossroads in her illustrious career in Paris, France 1897 portrayed by the very English and very formidable actress Janet McTeer (in top form) at the American Airlines Theatre for the Roundabout Theatre Company, long absent from the New York stage.

Sarah is 55, heralded as the best, most divine actress of the century but she’s feeling a bit blue as she is a bit long in the tooth to continue portraying ingénues in this quasi-historical opus that fishtails into the story of a woman seeking power and respect for her talent.

She also faces huge debts incurred from her last fiasco written by a younger Edmund Rostand (Jason Butler Harner) who happens to be working on his newest project CYRANO de BERGERAC while canoodling with the Divine Miss Sarah behind his wife Rosamond’s back.  This is where the creativity of Ms. Rebeck wanders off into fiction-land I believe.  The canoodling part.

And so to revitalize her career she decides to portray Hamlet.  Before I continue I have to mention that we are asked to accept – in our suspension of disbelief – that all we see takes place in turn of the century Paris where all our actors speak English.  Only Matthew Sandoval as the French artist Alphonse Mucha, who created her many art nouveau posters, has a tinge of Continental speech.  That’s about all the French you’ll get in this production.

Helping us along are the exceptional sets by Beowulf Boritt that evoke the period beautifully as do the costumes by Toni-Leslie James.

And so Sarah ponders the part of Hamlet.  Poses.  Pontificates.  Rules the roost backstage during Act I, rehearsing and looking for motivations as we wait for some kind of action which arrives at the very end of the Act when she decides that Rostand will rewrite Shakespeare’s HAMLET without all the poetry.  After intermission the play happily takes off in what may seem like too many directions to some.

We meet Sarah’s son Maurice an excellent Nick Westrate.  And Rostand’s miscast wife (Ito Aghayere also a writer) who penned the famous adage “I love you more than yesterday and less than tomorrow.”  Which might be the most memorable line of BERNHARDT/HAMLET.

We see a bit from CYRANO (Dylan Baker as actor Constant Coquelin) and then a return to HAMLET and the formidable Janet McTeer for its very surprising conclusion.

Other than the I-am-the-star performance of Janet McTeer, BERNHARDT/HAMLET is a slow going and disappointing affair directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel where the real Sarah Bernhardt remains elusive.

Through November 11th.


Photos:  Joan Marcus

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