Theresa Rebeck’s BERNHARDT/HAMLET, now in its Chicago debut at the Goodman with direction from Donna Feore, is a comedic takedown of gender politics in the theater—and, as an extension, in society at large. Set in 1899, the play is Rebeck’s fictional reimagining of famed French actor Sarah Bernhardt’s experience portraying one of the most canonical roles in the theater: Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Rebeck’s play is often amusing, and her script is full of witty dialogue and one-offs. While the play’s themes surrounding gender roles and how so often women in power are questioned are undoubtedly timely, some of the ways in which those themes manifest in BERNHARDT/HAMLET are rather too pointed.
Still, Feore’s production is a lively one that mainly keeps the action moving at a brisk pace. Though the production loses steam towards the end of the first act, the second act speeds along as Sarah continues to wrestle with her mastery of Shakespeare’s text and as her illicit romance with playwright Edmond Rostand (best known for writing CYRANO DE BERGERAC) comes to a head in matters of both love and art.
The ensemble embraces the wittiness of Rebeck’s language, and they look stunning in Dana Osborne’s period costumes. William Dick is delightful as the snobby French theater critic Louis Lamercier, who has long been a fan of Sarah’s work yet sneers in the face of her plan to take on such a significant male role. John Tufts brings a great deal of affability to Rostand, underscoring the sincerity of the character’s intentions and actions—even when things go awry. Travis Turner and Nate Cheeseman are great fun as ensemble members in Sarah’s production, eager to milk all their onstage moments for maximum dramatic effect. And Larry Yando proves yet again that he is the master of both Shakespearean language and wry line deliveries as Constant Coquelin, Sarah’s fellow thespian and advisor throughout the HAMLET rehearsal process. Yando’s performance is easily one of the most amusing and enjoyable elements of the entire production. Luigi Sottile also has a well-executed and hilarious turn as Sarah’s son Maurice in the play’s second act, which brings renewed energy to the show as a whole.
Although BERNHARDT/HAMLET centers on a woman who wants to carve out a bigger space for herself in the male-dominated theater world, the play is oddly lacking in substantial parts for women outside of the title role. Perhaps this is meant to reflect the fact that Sarah was constantly surrounded by men looking to overshadow her, but it seems like a missed opportunity. While Jennifer Latimore gives a commanding performance as Rostand’s wife Rosamond Gerard, she has but a brief appearance. Similarly, Amanda Drinkall lends a tenderness and inquisitiveness to the role of Lysette, but the part itself is rather slim.
Ultimately, BERNHARDT/HAMLET hinges on the performer in the role of Sarah Bernhardt herself. Terri McMahon is a formidable presence, and she nails Sarah’s inherent flair for the dramatic. McMahon also makes consistently big character choices from the get-go. Because she approaches the role from such a heightened place, we miss some of the distinction between Sarah’s attempts to master Shakespeare’s texts and the more introspective moments that come with what it means to chart that course as a woman in the theater. McMahon’s outsized performance misses some opportunities to reveal more of the interiority and vulnerability in her character. With McMahon’s rendition, however, it’s easy to see how Sarah can command a room and persuade those around her to see things from her perspective—even as those perspectives are often questioned by the men around her. McMahon’s performance and Rebeck’s script demonstrate that Sarah Bernhardt was not one to back down from a challenge, either on the stage or in life.
BERNHARDT/HAMLET runs through October 20 in the Albert Theater at Goodman Theatre, 170 North Dearborn. Tickets are $25-$80. Visit GoodmanTheatre.org or call 312.443.3800.
Photo Credit: Liz Lauren
Originally published on BroadwayWorld.com