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Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Bernhardt/HamletTheatre Pro Rata
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's recent reviews of Falsettos and Passage


Em Rosenberg and Nicole Goeden
Photo by Alex Wohlhueter
If the great actor Sarah Bernhardt lived today, her fame and influence would be comparable to Beyoncé or Taylor Swift. Today, no actor has the degree of world-wide recognition and clout as our highest reigning pop musicians. But 150 years ago, before films, television, radio, and recorded music, the stage was the cauldron of celebrity, and none were more celebrated than Bernhardt. She made her stage debut at the age of 18 with the Comédie Français in 1862, and by the end of the century she'd triumphed in her native France, throughout Europe, and around the world, her tours reaching as far-flung a place as Samoa. She also amassed a reputation for her numerous love affairs, including (so she stated) many of the crowned heads of Europe, her extravagant lifestyle, her exotic pets, and such idiosyncrasies as sleeping in a coffin–velvet lined, of course. It is fair to say that she was the world's first "superstar."

In 1893 she purchased her own theater in Paris in order to produce and star in plays of her choosing. One play she chose was Hamlet. She had previously done multiple turns as Ophelia and was now of an age when she could easily play Gertrude, Hamlet's mother, but Bernhardt was intent on playing the title role. This forms the crux of Theresa Rebeck's play Bernhardt/Hamlet, being staged by Theatre Pro Rata.

Rebeck takes this bit of theatre history and delves into the issues that swirled around that production. Bernhardt's detractors were outraged, and even some of her loyalists were skeptical, at the notion of a woman Hamlet. Yes, Bernhardt had previously played "pants roles," (parts in which a woman performed as a man), but Hamlet is in another league altogether, arguably the greatest character in the greatest play in the English language, if not in any language. Which was precisely why Bernhardt claimed the role: if she is the world's greatest actress–she suffers no modesty when it comes to accepting such praise–why shouldn't she play the greatest role ever written? So what if she is a woman and the character is a man? All theatre is pretend, and she can pretend anything, and better than anyone.

The playwright incorporates historical figures with whom Bernhardt was associated, though taking liberties by speculating about or outright inventing certain incidents and aspects of relationships among the characters. Most prominent among them is Edmund Rostand, the playwright best known for penning Cyrano de Bergerac. Rostand and Bernhardt did collaborate–she performed in several of his plays, including the non-lead role of Roxanne in Cyrano, a compromise aimed at raising much needed cash. It is, however, not certain that Bernhardt and Rostand had an intimate relationship.

As the play opens, we see a rehearsal for Hamlet in process, with Bernhardt appearing far more distractible and uncertain of what choices to make than we would expect of the great and strong-willed artist. Her struggle is with the prince's speeches, as well those of other characters, finding them bloated with too many words and defanged by their rhymed sing-song quality. She entreats Rostand, who is putty in her hands, to do the unthinkable–rewrite Hamlet for her. In fact, Bernhardt did have a rewritten version of Hamlet for her production, but by writers named Eugène Morand and Marcel Schwob, not Rostand.

Other characters in Bernhardt/Hamlet based on real personages include Alphonse Mucha, the artist who first achieved fame for the iconic theatrical posters he created for Bernhardt's productions starting in 1894 and through a six-year period that included her Hamlet. His presence in Rebeck's play is that of an observer, trying to describe the merger of actress and character in two dimensions, and also a reliable source of cheer and good will. Also depicted is Constant Coquelin, a great French actor whose career overlapped many of the same years as Bernhardt's. In the play he seems to represent the fleeting glory of an actor's life. Having played Hamlet four times (he repeatedly reminds all within earshot), he is now "reduced" to playing two much smaller roles, the ghost of Hamlet's father and Polonius–in contrast to Bernhardt, who has no intention of ever accepting anything other than lead roles of epic proportion.

Bernhardt had one child, Maurice, and he too appears in Bernhardt/Hamlet. His difficulty managing money being no better than his mother's and being dependent on her for his own cash flow, he fears that her taking on Hamlet is a step too far that will ruin her career–and his bank balance. Rostand's wife Rosamond is also depicted in the play, though it is doubtful there is anything in the historical record to confirm any of what she says or does here. Several other characters are actors rehearsing Hamlet with Bernhardt and Coquelin. Lysette is cast as Ophelia, and in a randy rehearsal scene with Bernhardt, breathes credence to the belief that the "Divine Sarah" had female as well as male lovers.

Rebeck's play continually draws our interest, blending nuggets of theatre history, a depiction of a woman able to yield great power at a time when few women had any, and a good deal of sharp humor as well. Under Carin Bratlie Wethern's seamless direction, the show sparkles. Sadie Ward's set design, Emmet Kowler's lighting, Jacob M. Davis' sound design, and Jenny Moeller's props design create a sense of the environment in which these actors, playwrights, and artists labored. Raphael Ferreira's costumes are outstanding, in particular the costume used by Sarah Bernhardt to portray Hamlet–princely, but with a touch of sparkle that could be considered feminine. Her dinner party gown is sumptuous, befitting an 1899 superstar.

The one thing lacking is an undeniable force at the center of the play. Nicole Goeden conveys the talent, persistence, ability to hold court in a room full of men, and sensual appeal we expect of Sarah Bernhardt–but not the brazen charisma that would make it impossible to deny her anything. She is persuasive, but then, the people around her are, for the most part, easily persuaded. This is not to say Goeden is not good in the part–she is very good, but without a sense of a woman who wields extraordinary power. Perhaps the shortcoming is the playwright's. At one point she is accused of being a tyrant, but we never witness that tyranny; in fact it seems to have been said in jest. Are there not moments in the play where we see the tyranny of a superstar accustomed to getting her way?

Em Rosenberg does very well as Rostand, gushing with youth and in absolute thrall of Bernhardt. Rosenberg portrays Rostand as such as a good person, though perhaps na├»ve, trapped in the web of Bernhardt's charms, so much that we can almost make allowance for his being unfaithful to his wife–almost, but not quite, which is as it should be. As Alphonse Mucha, Derek "Duck" Washington is delightful, conveying the frustration of an artist whose juices are blocked, yet maintaining the high spirits of the creative milieux in which he has found himself.

Sean Dillon is fully believable as Constant Coquelin, an actor struggling to remain graceful as his career shifts from the early blush of fame to a place a step outside the spotlight. In a twist of fate, the real Coquelin's career returned to high-gear when he played the lead in the premiere of Cyrano de Bergerac, a role he repeated often. Ben Qualley impresses as Sarah's son Maurice, clearly a young man raised to speak his mind freely. Ankita Ashrit is moving in her brief appearance as Rosamond Rostand, and Clara Marsh shows an acumen for drawing attention to herself as Lysette.

Bernhardt/Hamlet is very much worth seeing, especially for anyone interested in the history of the theatre. For me it certainly triggered a desire to know much more about the amazing Sarah Bernhardt. Theatre Pro Rata has gone to the mat to give the play a top-drawer production. The play also raises questions that continue to need raising. Shouldn't a woman–or man–be allowed to play whatever role they wish so long as they have the ability? The question received attention not long ago when the great Glenda Jackson made headlines playing King Lear in London (2016) and New York (2019). The question applies to casting across racial lines as well, but in some ways gender may be an even harder line to cross. Theatre Pro Rata has pushed it a bit, not only by choosing this play, but casting a non-binary actor, Em Rosenberg, in the role of Edmond Rostand.

Bernhardt/Hamlet, presented by Theatre Pro Rata, runs through October 14, 2023, at the Crane Theater, 2303 Kennedy Street N.E., Minneapolis MN. For tickets and information, please call 612-234-7135 or visit theatreprorata.org.

Playwright: Theresa Rebeck; Director: Carin Bratlie Wethern; Set Design: Sadie Ward; Costume Design: Raphael Ferreira; Lighting Design: Emmet Kowler; Sound Design: Jacob M. Davis; Prop Design: Jenny Moeller; Intimacy/Fight Choreographer: Annie Enneking; Dramaturg: Nissa Nordland Morgan; Assistant Set Designer: Sarah Schniepp; Stage Manager: Clara Costello.

Cast: Anika Ashrit (Rosamond/ensemble), Claire Chenoweth (Raoul), Sean Dillon (Constant Coquelin), Nicole Goeden (Sarah Bernhardt), Christy Johnson (Francois), Clara Marsh (Lysette), Ben Qualley (Maurice/ensemble), Em Rosenberg (Edmond Rostand), Derek "Duck" Washington (Alphonse Mucha), Jeremy Williams (Louis/ensemble). Logo


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