Theater Review: BERNHARDT/HAMLET (Goodman Theatre in Chicago)

by Lawrence Bommer on September 24, 2019

in Theater-Chicago

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TO BE OR NOT TO BE SARAH BERNHARDT

Well, with “Bernhardt” and “Hamlet” sharing the marquee, Goodman Theatre’s season-opener must be larger than life if not literature. Sprawling and stuffed at 150 minutes, Theresa Rebeck’s multi-focused 2018 drama Bernhardt/Hamlet takes a quizzical look at a bizarre chapter of theater lore. We’re witness to the sensation-seeking choice of legendary leading lady Sarah Bernhardt to transform (or trivialize) the toughest role on the boards into a “trouser” role.

Directed by Donna Feore, an unimprovable 14-member ensemble recreate the tempestuous world of an idol — false or true — of the stage.

In 1899 the divine headliner (an equally charismatic Terri McMahon) was 55 and broke following the critical success and box-office failure of La Samaritaine, written by her quondam admirer and possible lover Edmond de Rostand. A typically impetuous mid-life crisis will force the great one to go beyond playing Camille and Ophelia to tackling the title role of the world’s greatest tragedy.

Holding court in her namesake theater, Sarah will pit herself against both Shakespeare (reversing the Elizabethan custom of boys playing women) and Hamlet himself, insisting that he’s 19, not 30. Worse, confusing Hamlet with Laertes or Fortinbras, she will play him as a melodramatic man of action, not introspection and indecision.

What is always a marathon La Bernhardt turns into a sprint, toward what, other than the promptings of her ego, we never learn. (In one of many unwittingly hilarious moments, Rebeck even suggests that, for all her technique, Bernhardt invented method acting out of desperation.)

Frustratingly, Rebeck never tells us if Bernhardt’s bet paid off. (Her supposed trailblazing didn’t exactly establish a precedent for gender-switching pivotal parts.) The chronicler is more interested in the lead-ins to this counter-casting — the rehearsal process that exposes Sarah’s “whim” to rethink and even rewrite the Bard (which Rostand is reluctant to do); the purist critics’ skepticism led by reviewer Louis Lemercier (William Dick); and Rostand’s own identity crisis as, refusing to mess with the Bard, he struggles to find his own voice in his imminent masterpiece Cyrano de Bergerac. Meanwhile, another great artist and devotee, the sublime prince of posters Alphonse Mucha (Gregory Linington), wrestles with his passion to immortalize his constant Muse, the 19th-century’s top thespian.

Beyond these concerns, Rebeck brings other pots to boil, including Sarah’s respect for veteran player Constant Coquelin (Larry Yando, all but channeling Thespis himself), the future Cyrano; the liabilities of stage illusions versus performers’ delusions; and the temptation to confuse gimmicks with breakthroughs. Sarah has volatile run-ins with Rostand’s dignified wife Rosamond (Jennifer Latimore), intent on displacing a false idol, and with her grown son Maurice (Luigi Sottile), beseeching love as much as money.

When Rebeck isn’t having fun dishing backstage gossip and mocking easy targets like histrionic artists, she regales us with lengthy chunks of Hamlet and Cyrano (so much so that you might think Bernhardt/Hamlet is as much about Rostand as Shakespeare). McMahon’s tragedienne doggedly reinforces the legend of a proto-feminist diva, temperamental to a virtue and self-servingly incomparable. The play ends inconclusively with an irrelevant salute to silent movies.

From Narelle Sissons’ evocative, prop-heavy sets to Dana Osborne’s fin de siècle costumes, Goodman Theatre spares nothing to give this Chicago premiere the right look, if not feel. What we get is a very conditional valentine to the theater, cunningly contrasting its arrogance with its transience.

But Rebeck’s overloaded whole isn’t greater than its fascinating parts. Most perplexingly, amid this onslaught of incidentals, we never discover whether Bernhardt’s “Princess of Denmark” was a fluke or the future. Authentically or impotently, we remain as stuck in the moment as they were 120 years ago. That’s theater.

photos by Liz Lauren

Bernhardt/Hamlet
Goodman Theatre’s Albert Theatre
170 North Dearborn
ends on October 20, 2019
for tickets, call 312 443 3800 or visit Goodman Theatre

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Kathryn October 5, 2019 at 10:28 pm

We left at intermission. One of the most boring plays I have ever seen. Except for Lando, who is terrific in everything he does, the writing and acting were lackluster at best. The Goodman is spotty. Dana H. is great and a must-see. This was dreadful.

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Hamlet October 9, 2019 at 1:20 pm

I second the “Kathryn” comment above — we also left at intermission. Hamlet and Bernhardt, what could be more promising? But this was sort of a literature major’s indulgence, dull for the spectator; very hard to care about the “drama” on-stage.

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