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A CurtainUp Review

"No one upstages me" — Sarah Bernhardt
Janet McTeer (Photo: Joan Marcus)
Sarah Bernhardt as channeled by Janet McTeer is right. Both McTeer and the legendary 19th Century stage superstar she portrays in Bernhardt/Hamlet are impossible to upstage. And Teresa Rebeck's new play now getting a classy premiere production at the Roundabout's American Airline Theatre captures the star power of both its main character and her interpreter.

The busy and always witty Rebeck's new play isn't a Sarah Bernhardt biography (you can get that from Wikipedia). Instead it's about a period in her life when she struggled to revitalize her career by taking on one of Shakespeare's most famous and coveted titular roles, and do so in an original and artful way.

While Rebeck has used facts about Bernhardt's personal and professional history, she's allowed herself to take liberties with those facts to accommodate her own agenda. Consequently, Bernhardt/Hamlet's mix of fact and fiction is best described as faction.

There's no denying that Rebeck's making the renowned actress a ground breaking spokesperson for her own feminist agenda adds considerable relevance to her play. Having the actress known as "the divine Sarah" played by the divine Janet McTeer certainly adds ticket selling pzazz. However, while McTeer is 100% successful in capturing Bernhardt's powerful persona, this history-a-la-Rebeck is clever but doesn't score as high.

The play doesn't waste time getting to its chief asset. McTeer comes on stage immediately dashingly attired in trousers and boots and thus setting the scene for the exploration of the pros and cons about whether in 1897 even the great Bernhardt can succeed in a male role that drives the plot.

Now in her mid-fifties (as McTeer is) Bernhardt realizes that she desperately wants and needs a change from tragic roles like the dying courtesan of Dumas' romance La Dame Aux Camelias. She's confident that she's up to the challenge. However, her recent venture into something different — financing and starring in La Samaritaine by up and coming playwright Edmond Rostand (Jason Butler Harner) — was a critical success but a financial flop. Clearly, a more sure-fire hit role is called for if Bernhardt is to revitalize her career and deal with her financial problems.

Making Rostand and Bernhardt lovers marks Rebeck's first departure from fact. Though the actress did star in Rostand's first and unsuccessful play, they were never lovers. This fictional twist adds an interesting sub-plot to the scenes that give voice to the issues pertaining to Rebeck's feminist issues about gender role playing in a sexist society.

While Bernhardt did want Hamlet re-written to suit her vision of the character, Rostand was not her rewrite man as Harner's smitten Rostand is here. Since Rostand who was married and was at that time working on Cyrano de Bergerac, Rebeck's take on the facts enables Rebeck to make Rostand a poster boy of how even highly intelligent and able men risk being done in by their baser urges. That twist does ultimately leave us wondering if the play shouldn't have been named Bernhardt/Hamlet/Cyrano

Fortunately, whenever things get a bit too talky, which is especially so in the first act, Director Moritz von Stuelpnagel's dazzles the audience by sending Beowulf Boritt's turntable set spinning to another colorful and finely detailed scene. Boritt's scenery and Toni-Lesle James' costumes—everything about this lavishly 19th century production — helps to accommodate the play's 21st century ideas.

Though this is very definitely Sarah Bernhardt's story to tell, and Janet McTeer's to turn into a must-see experience, Bernhardt/Hamlet is also enriched and enlivened by the actors who are part of her effort to not just do Hamlet, but do him as she wants.

The male dramatis personae besides Jason Butler Harner's vibrant Edmund Rostand: a noted actor Constant Coquelin (Dylan Baker- wonderful!) . . . Alphonse Mucha the famous art deco theatrical poster designer (Matthew Saldivar-also wonderful!). . .and Louis (a deliciously acerbic Tony Carlin) a critic who despite being Sarah's friend is intensely opposed to her playing Hamlet since to him "a woman with power is a freak".. . Maurice (a charming Nick Westrate), Sarah's son whose arrival spins the play in a rather surprising new direction.

There are also two other female roles: Lysette (Brittany Bradford) who has an amusing turn as Ophelia in one of the very welcome though snippet-sized actual scenes from the play. . . and Edmund's wife Rosumond (a brief but stunningly performance by Ito Aghayere), a woman different but in her own way as strong and determined as Benhardt.

History confirms that Bernhardt did bring her Hamlet to the stage. The play backs this up with a gimmicky surprise ending. But if you expect to see McTeer actually playing a substantial except of the role as discussed and in trial bits, you'll be as disappointed as I was.

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Bernhardt/Hamlet by Teresa Rebeck
Directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel
Cast (in order of appearance):Janet McTeer (Sarah Berhardt),Dylan Baker (Constant Coquelin), Brittany Bradford (Lysette),Triney Sandoval (Francois,Worker) Aaron Costa Ganis (Raoul), Jason Butler Harner (Edmond Rostand), Tony Carlin (Louis, Ensemble), Matthew Saldivar (Alphonse Mucha), Nick Westrate (Maurice_, Ito Aghayere (Rosamond), Mathew Amendt, Jenelle Chu, Chris Thorn (Ensemble). Sets: Beowulf Boritt
Costumes: Toni-Leslie James
Lighting: Bradley King
Original music and Sound:Fitz Patton
Wig and Hair design:Matthew B. Armentrout
Dialet Coach: Stephen Gabis
Stage Manager James Fitsimmons
Running Time: Approx. 2 hours and 20 minutes, plus 1 intermission.
Roundabout's American Airlines Theater
From 8/31/18; opening 9/25/18; closing 11/11/18
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 9/22 press matinee

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