Actress Sarah Bernhardt — born in 1844 to a Dutch courtesan, died in 1923, buried in Père-Lachaise in Paris — had a life and career so outsized that the field of poster design was revolutionized to capture her. Plays were written for her; her romantic life spanned genders and continents. Bernhardt: the name itself connoted outsized emotions. When I was young, any overly dramatic adolescent girl or boy was a “Sarah Bernhardt.”
Taking a chapter of Bernhardt’s life from 1897, Rebeck finds themes of modern feminism and how to craft a creative life. The actress had long grown out of the ingénue and young romantic leads that she’d used to forge her reputation, and now has signed a lease on a Parisian theater that would become her creative home for the next several decades. When we encounter her — as played by a magnificent Janet McTeer, splendidly calibrating her performance powers to the ebbs and flows of the script — she is working on an adaptation of Hamlet that is being reluctantly crafted by her married lover, Cyrano de Bergerac playwright Edmond Rostand (flighty and besotted Jason Butler Harner). The romance is but a sideline: it’s Bernhardt, arguing to adapt this classic young male Shakespearean role to her 50-something female frame, in whom we’re naturally interested.
The strengths of this production, finely staged by Moritz von Stuelpnagel, center on scenes in which Bernhardt makes choices in rehearsal about her performance and demonstrates her generosity toward colleagues. They include delightful clowns Raoul (Aaron Costa Ganis) and Francois (Triney Sandoval), gentle ingénue Lysette (Brittany Bradford), and especially Dylan Baker’s crisp, competent Constant Coquelin, the leading actor of her troupe.
McTeer gives a great performance. Catch the catch in her throat at the first mention of a father that sets up the rest of the play; watch her righteous delivery of monologues in spotlight or in conversation; spot her humor and pathos while expounding on the value of women as humans, and of humans as equals. In a rehearsal scene, McTeer makes love to the ingenue of her troupe, who is playing a man. It’s just as we would imagine it. Such character-specific self-awareness is thrilling.
This is also a Bernhardt who has loved men and borne at least one son, Maurice (charming Nick Westrate), who appears out of mild concern for her finances and is soon dismissed. This Bernhardt lives in her strength — not as a man, as some characters in the play accuse, but as a human. This Bernhardt is also beyond playing the supplicant. “I will not go back to playing flowers for you fools,” she proclaims. “Not because I am too old. But because I was never a flower, and no matter how much you loved how beautifully I might play the ingenue, it was always beneath me. It is beneath all women.”
Rebeck’s Bernhardt is also decent. See how McTeer celebrates and supports Coquelin, with whom she begins the play with some fun and creative backstage banter. Or watch another rehearsal scene in which Coquelin portrays the ghost of Hamlet’s father, eliciting from Bernhardt one single gasp. In that gasp is contained the first potent suggestion of the theme of her Hamlet, of the child yearning for an absent father.
When the focus is on making sense of absent fathers (in life, in love, in art) or on crafting art, the play resonates. When too many external observations about Bernhardt’s life and the possibilities of female success in a man’s world are offered up by male characters, the brakes seem applied to the dramatic propulsion of the play. Do we need multiple conversations about how critics might resist Bernhardt’s independent spirit? True, a critic named Louis (stolid Tony Carlin) has no patience for Bernhardt’s blasphemous idea of stepping outside of established gender roles and providing his opinion in several scenes. But then there’s Alphonse Mucha (flighty Matthew Saldivar), whose familiar Art Nouveau cartoon style was featured on Bernhardt posters for years, and whose poster serves as a talisman for the themes of Rebeck’s play, questioning the choices of the actress yet observing her with love.
There is, indeed, much heart to Bernhardt. Her debates with Rostand, for example, full up on strategy more than emotion. He is bemused that she dares to play the troubled Danish prince, yet he bristles at adapting the play and character as she wishes — less passive, less depressed. And he resents her, too, for he claims that the role of Roxane in Cyrano was written for her, like a great gift. All Bernhardt sees is an illustration of how he totally misunderstands her.
Beowulf Boritt’s delectable turntable set, lit with versatility by Bradley King, establishes playing spaces elegantly and visually emphasizes the appropriate themes. The largest and most potent playing area is the theater’s backstage area. Through a door upstage is access to Bernhardt’s dressing room and living quarters, where conversations occur about the roles women can play on stage, and where art and commerce can intersect. It is also the site of the pivotal appearance of Rostand’s wife, Rosamond (determined Ito Aghayere), who delivers the text of her husband’s newest play that quietly upends part of the story. Splendid costumes by Toni-Leslie James are well draped, but functional and classy. Original music, by Fitz Patton, contributes orchestral strings to scene transitions and overall aural context for the world of the play.
So it is a very busy backstage world, but it’s finally one with a few too many male voices. The core of the story is vibrant — a famous theatrical diva at a pivotal career moment. At once no longer young, not yet old, and unwilling to fade into the background to tell some other person’s story. Fair enough: this is hers to tell. Why doesn’t she tell it?