By Tulis McCall
As the leader of this motley crew of fine actors in Bernhardt/Hamlet, Janet McTeer is quite, quite wonderful. Period. She is mercurial and thoughtful. She conveys the feeling that she is looking for just the right word to say, and that she herself is not certain what that might be. She keeps you on alert, which is the job of an actor. Less satisfying is the play Bernhardt/Hamlet in which McTeer is appearing.
Theresa Rebeck is a smart writer, and in this case she is taking on two towering legends: Bernhardt AND Shakespeare. Rebeck does not hold back and lets us in on the divine Bernhardt tinkering – yes indeed – with Hamlet. When others try to feed her the lines, she explains again and again, like a parent to a child, that she knows the lines. It is the meaning she is trying to decipher. When others have moved into the space of delivering their lines out of habit, she pulls them out of that orbit. She demands that they listen – and this is not an activity that most are used to. In a particularly moving scene with Constant Coquelin (Dylan Baker) Bernhardt strips bare the scene between Hamlet and the ghost of his father. Bernhardt goes at the script like a surgeon with a laser. What is all the poetry for? Why so many words for a man who is bereft of feeling? This Hamlet is eating away at her core. The only thing outside of her passion for Hamlet is her passion for Edmond Rostand (Jason Butler Harner) – the author of Cyrano De Bergerac. Rostand is married, but this is no impediment to their relationship, except when it is. Their passion is matched by their intellect in every way, and their encounters are more like sparring matches.
There is a lot of sparring in this play. In the first act the journey is focused on dropping deep into the text of Hamlet to the point where Bernhardt asks Rostand to re-write it for her – taking out all that blasted poetry. The second act is a whole other country. The majority of it is a dinner party tucked into Berhardt’s dressing room where she takes on four men: Rostand, Coquelin, the artist and creator of her many performances posters Alphonse Much (Matthew Saldivar) and a critic simply referred to as Louis (Tony Carlin). This is a fascinating debate over the propriety of Bernhardt playing Hamlet – the play has not opened t this point, so why the dinner party was in her dressing room is a bit of a mystery. Bernhardt takes these men on the Serena Williams might engage with four teenage boys on the other side of the net. She dismisses their concerns as plebeian or trounces them with philosophy of her own that she finds infinitely more interesting. It is a fascinating scene that serves to educate us even further on the exploits of Bernhardt, but achieves no other purpose. It is only the awkward entry of Rosamond Rostand (Ito Aghayere), wife of Edmond, that adds a plot point. She brings with her the latest script that her husband has stopped writing because of his devotion to Sarah’s whim of a new Hamlet. It is this play that will finally divide the two lovers. In an odd choice we actually see a scene from the play, which is jarring as it is wildly out of place.
The most fascinating scenes are between the men who discuss Bernhard, well out of earshot. They don’t know how she does what she does, but her performances are beyond anything they have ever experienced.
As Mucha says: I sketch. You live. Inside something so enormous, and when it rises in you, you transform us all. It is impossible to tell you what we see, when we watch you.
It is Bernhardt’s off-stage choices that these men question, both out of propriety and out of fear that she may do damage to herself. These men are invested, and her choices drag them along with her, whether they want to go or not. Bernhardt cast a wide net at a time when the only way to communicate was by writing a letter or showing up in person and she remains a living legend over 100 years later.
What is lacking in Bernhardt/Hamlet is a strong plot, a reason to move forward, something that raises the stakes. This is not easy in a biographical drama. We know how it turned out so what is there to worry about? Sadly not a lot, and because of this Janet McTeer, though quite wonderful, never makes the leap into the Bernhardt that everyone is discussing. I never forgot that it was McTeer up there – entertaining and inspiring, but never Bernhardt.
Sets, Beowulf Boritt; costumes, Toni-Leslie James; lighting, Bradley King; original music & sound, Fitz Patton; hair & wigs, Matthew B. Armentrout; dialect coach, Stephen Gabis; fight coach, Robert Westley; production stage manager, James FitzSimmons.
PRODUCTION: A Roundabout Theater Company production of a play in two acts by Theresa Rebeck. American Airlines Theater, 740 seats; $149 top. Running time: TWO HOURS, 25 MIN. Tickets.